An agricultural powerhouse of a state like Minnesota should be plowing healthy sums into agricultural research to ensure abundant yields and economic growth far into the future. But a legislative proposal with the noble aim of boosting state support is unfortunately based on a dubious strategy — routing the additional public dollars through a new board whose voting members are often self-appointed by political special interests.
The measure is known in Capitol shorthand as the “Ag Transfer Board.’’ Officially, it’s dubbed the “Agricultural Research, Extension and Technology Transfer Board’’ by the Minnesota House legislation that would make it a reality and potentially provide at least $7 million in funding over the next biennium (requested sums have been a moving target during the session but at one point were at $37 million for the biennium). The board also has a powerful champion: Republican Rep. Rod Hamilton, chairman of the House Agricultural Finance Committee. Similar legislation in the Senate doesn’t set up the board, but requires University of Minnesota officials to “consult with stakeholders representing general farm, forestry and agricultural producer organizations.”
The House version has momentum thanks to Hamilton’s influence and the lobbying might of agricultural organizations backing it. Proponents also pitch the board as better able to respond to emerging crop and animal diseases — a selling point as turkey farmers grapple with the spread of avian flu. But legislators and state and university officials already have the ability to target dollars to crises like those. A convincing argument has not yet been made in numerous committee hearings for how a large, new board would expedite rather than slow this process.
The board would also establish a troubling precedent on control of general fund dollars, which would provide the board’s funding. Essentially, the legislation creates a pot of public money and turns it over to interest group representatives with vague language about how it could be spent.
The House legislation calls for the board to include the state commissioner of agriculture, the dean of the U’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, and a representative of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. But these three are not voting members.
Voting members would include representatives of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, the Minnesota Farmers Union, the Minnesota Pork Board, state commodity councils and “an association of primary manufacturers of forest products.’’ A representative of the state’s organic or sustainable agriculture would also have voting rights.
The state does have other independent boards with influence over spending of public dollars. A well-known one is the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council. But that board makes recommendations for legislators to approve. The new agricultural board, if it becomes a reality, appears to be the first entity that would be authorized to spend general fund dollars without this approval. That some interest groups would appoint their board representatives also appears unusual.
Special-interest groups are not accountable to the public. Elected officials are, which is why they are entrusted with public spending. Hamilton, to his credit, is open to making the board serve only in an advisory capacity, meaning it would only make spending recommendations. That’s a more palatable alternative, but more details are needed before it merits support.