Conference committee discussing emergency avian influenza funds

ST. PAUL — Avian influenza emergency response funds appear bogged down in legislative uncertainty.

ST. PAUL — The Senate on Friday appointed three people to a conference committee to resolve differences in an avian influenza emergency funding bill.

Appointed were Sen. Kevin Dahle, DFL-Northfield, Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, and Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook.

The bill, HF2225, provides nearly $1 million to the Minnesota Board of Animal Health and Minnesota Department of Agriculture for avian influenza response. HF2225 unanimously passed the Senate April 21.

The bill unanimously passed the House April 16, but the Senate added language changing a reporting date for the budget reserve. The House had announced previously it wouldn't accept unrelated language, so instead of going to the governor the bill is headed to conference committee.



The legislative uncertainty isn't affecting the on-the-ground response to the devastating disease that, as of April 23, had been confirmed on 46 farms in 16 Minnesota counties.

"We have not been affected in our ability to respond," said Bethany Hahn, a Minnesota Board of Animal Health spokeswoman.

More than 200 people, from both state and federal agencies, are on the ground and responding to the outbreak.

"There's a great team of people who are working together on this response," she said.

The bulk of the state response has been paid for out of Board of Animal Health funds. As time goes on, the board will have a better idea on the exact cost of the response, which is nearing two months' time, Hahn said. The first confirmed case in Minnesota was reported March 4.

The emergency funds are for paying people working overtime in the field to respond to the crisis and for hiring additional short-term staff, said Santo Cruz, Minnesota Department of Agriculture director of government relations, at an April 20 Senate Finance Committee hearing where the emergency funding bill was heard.

The state money won't compensate farmers, rather USDA appraisers are in the state to appraise flocks that have to be destroyed. Farmers are paid for the birds that have to be euthanized, not the ones that are killed by avian influenza.

Amendments debated


The legislative uncertainty seems to have arisen over an amendment offered to HF2225 by Sen. Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, in the last three minutes of an April 20 finance committee hearing. The amendment changes a date for reporting on the budget reserve.

Cohen said the change was requested by the state's economist. It changes the reporting date to Aug. 31 from Jan. 15 and adds chairs and ranking minority members of the Senate Finance Committee, House Ways and Means Committee and the tax committees from both houses to a list of people receiving the report.

Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, immediately questioned why the amendment was put on the bill. It seems unrelated to turkey flu, he said, asking if there wasn't another bill going through the committee it could be attached to.

"I'm not aware of any opposition to this," Cohen said. "Because it's a policy issue — this has some policy language — we've tried with our finance bills, as everybody knows, to limit some of the policy language, and this is not tied to money. Again, I'm not aware of any opposition to it, so I'm hoping it doesn't hold things up. If it does, we can address it at that point. But it shouldn't hold things up."

The policy language inserted by Cohen didn't hold up the bill, but the reporting language did create a debate on the Senate floor. Westrom introduced an amendment to remove the Cohen amendment.

"I am still puzzling over what the urgency of changing a reporting date for a state agency from January to Aug. 31 ... how that rivals with the emergency we've got going on with the turkey industry in our state," Westrom said. "This came up very last minute in finance committee. Nobody can give me a great explanation, and it certainly doesn't rival the emergency. ... You know the sense of urgency."

"It's a relatively small change in that we're moving the date from January into August," said Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook. "The reason for that is when we are making the calculations for determining the amount that would flow into the reserves that we have a date after the legislative session so any legislative actives that occur would be taken into account as the MMB (Minnesota Management and Budget) does their calculations. It just seems like a relatively reasonable thing to accomplish this year and it helps the department as they're doing their forecasting and calculation."

"Understand this, if we support this amendment and we pass this bill out, the governor can sign it tonight," said Sen. Carrie Rudd, R-Breezy Point. "Tonight, we can have emergency funding and emergency relief for our farmers and our ag community. Tonight, we can do that. But if we pass this bill with this amendment on it without supporting the Westrom amendment we have to then have a conference committee, so it may be the end of the week, it may be next week ... and we have declared an emergency now."


Cohen said he thought his amendment would be something that wouldn't be difficult to deal with.

"I have no idea why this would cause a problem," he said.

"So, Sen. Cohen, this is not your average, standard finance bill that is coming before you, this is an emergency bill," said Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria. "Now, I know maybe in the metro area we're not that concerned about what goes on in greater Minnesota, but as has been said earlier here today, we are the turkey producing capital of the United States, and we are in a real disaster right now. This has to be dealt with. This is not even 'assess the tornado and do some appropriation a week from now.' This has got to be done today. These people need to be on the ground running today."

Westrom's amendment failed on a party-line vote, with 38 opposed and 27 in favor. There are 39 DFLers and 28 Republicans in the Senate.

Not accepted

Moments after the Senate passed the bill, House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said the House wouldn't accept the Senate language, and he was uncertain if the House would send another clean bill over or go to conference committee.

"It has nothing to do with providing farmers in greater Minnesota with the relief they need when they're suffering huge loses because of a disease that really they don't have control of," Daudt said in an April 21 press conference before the House went into session. "I think it's entirely disrespectful of the Senate to put other provisions that frankly are political in nature onto a bill that has nothing to do with those issues so we will not take those provisions in the House."

According to the legislative website, the House refused to concur and appointed three to a conference committee. Appointed to the conference committee were Rep. David Bly, DFL-Northfield, Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, and Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg.

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