A coalition of 15 Minnesota farm organizations called on Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders to approve property-tax credits for farmland that is taken out of production to meet the requirements of the state’s buffer law.
A strongly worded letter sent Wednesday said farmers have done their part to comply with the 2015 law and that they are “highly frustrated with the lack of action” to compensate them for converting valuable cropland to protect waterways.
“Let us be absolutely clear,” the letter said. “Anything other than final passage of the buffer property tax credit this year with your signature will be considered a failure and this WILL be a major issue in the elections this fall.”
The letter was addressed to Dayton and copied to House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, and Minority Leader Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, and to Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, and Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook. It was signed by the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association, the Minnesota Milk Producers Association, the Minnesota Farm Bureau and groups representing other crops and livestock operations.
Buffers are perennial vegetative strips planted between cropland and waterways to protect streams, rivers and lakes by slowing down or filtering runoff that contains pesticides, fertilizer and sediment. The law requires strips at least 30 feet wide and an average of 50 feet from public waters, or an alternative method of conservation that provides equal or better water-quality benefits.
It also applies to public ditches that feed into waterways, and requires 16½-foot buffers along them to be planted by Nov. 1.
The groups said that farmers, regulators and local governments have been working diligently to meet the deadline, but want property-tax credits as a matter of “fairness and equity.”
The current law, the letter said, “not only requires farmers to install buffers at their expense, but further penalizes farmers by continuing to tax buffer acres at valuations that assume these acres are still producing crops and income.”
The arrangement amounts to an “unfair financial penalty at a time of significant economic stress for Minnesota farm families,” the letter said.
The suggested remedy is a bipartisan bill that would provide a $50 per acre property-tax credit to farmers who have installed water-quality buffers on tillable land, even if they planted the buffers before the new law went into effect.
The money would come from the state’s Clean Water Fund — sales-tax revenue that is designated by a voter-approved constitutional amendment for projects and initiatives to improve water quality in Minnesota.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources estimated that the law will require planting 110,000 acres of perennial vegetative buffers along lakes, rivers, streams and ditches. Other estimates have reached as high as 300,000 eligible acres.
The House version of the tax-credit bill has received two committee hearings, including passage Tuesday by the House tax committee. But it still needs action by two other committees before it can reach the floor for a vote.
The Senate version of the measure has not been heard in committee.
Dayton considers the buffer law one of his signature accomplishments, and he has pushed back against attempts to delay or weaken it. He proposed a version of the property-tax credit as part of his 2017 tax bill, but the funding would have come from the general fund, not from the Clean Water Fund.
Last month, Dayton thanked the authors of the current tax-credit bill in a news release and said he strongly supported the legislation, but farmers fear that he may have backed off that position.
Dayton’s office issued a brief statement on the issue on Wednesday: “I strongly support the buffer tax credit through any funding source that is constitutional.”
The bill’s author Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, said Dayton and both sides of the aisle in the House support the idea of compensation for the farmers.
“The hang-up right now is the source of funding,” he said. “We think this qualifies for what the Clean Water Fund was designed to do.”