Makers of the alternative fuel are getting makeup subsidies, in amounts that are to increase and continue for years.
When the state cuts funds for schools, libraries, parks and other programs, the money often is gone forever.
But in the case of ethanol subsidies, money taken away years ago now is being restored with big checks that will get a lot bigger.
The state of Minnesota this month will send $1.8 million in subsidies to 13 ethanol plants for millions of gallons of fuel made as long as four years ago. Another $53 million is slated to be sent to those producers over the next six years.
The money is coming so long after the fact that one check will go to the creditors of a St. Paul ethanol plant that went out of business in 2004.
They're being called "deficiency" payments for state ethanol subsidies that were reduced in 2003 and are being restored retroactively.
To C. Ford Runge, a University of Minnesota economist, it's a "cockeyed way to organize a government subsidy" -- with the incentive coming years after the production the payments were supposed to encourage.
"If the purpose of this program is to lead the duck, they haven't even hit its tail feathers," Runge said. "In a period when resources are being stretched by natural and man-made disasters, it seems odd to give money to ethanol companies that are swimming in profits."
Keeping a commitment
A top state agriculture official said the payments are a matter of government ethics, sticking to a promise to pay 20 cents a gallon in ethanol subsidies for 10 years. In 2003, facing a big budget shortfall, the governor and Legislature reduced subsidy payments to 15 cents a gallon in fiscal year 2003 and 13 cents for the next four fiscal years.
In a compromise, the state promised to restore in the future money lost in the cuts.
"The Legislature and this administration felt that it was important to keep that commitment," said Jim Boerboom, deputy commissioner of agriculture.
But, acknowledging that ethanol plants have made handsome profits in recent years, he added: "Knowing today some of the economic conditions, I'm sure we'd all look for a different model."
The state began subsidizing ethanol production when it was an infant industry. Minnesota first offered subsidies in 1986, but it was 1993 before any new plants were built in the state. Farmers and lenders feared that investments in ethanol plants were too risky, said Ralph Groschen, a state agriculture senior marketing specialist.
In 1996, Minnesota produced less than 100 million gallons of ethanol. This year, 16 ethanol plants across the state are projected to turn out 620 million gallons. Next year, production is expected to climb to 1 billion gallons. Five new ethanol plants are being built across the state.
Most of the state's plants are owned by farmers who do not report their financial results. But Granite Falls Energy, which started production in 2005 and does not qualify for state subsidies, reported an operating profit of 29 percent on sales of nearly $51 million in the six months that ended April 30. Those are fat profits compared with much of Corporate America. The average operating margin is about 18 percent for Standard & Poor's 500 companies.
But state deficiency payments this year are coming at a welcome time for the producers receiving them. Ethanol prices in August are off nearly 30 percent from their peak in March.
In addition to direct subsidies, government has created demand for ethanol.