Legislation chief-authored by Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, to fund agriculture, rural development and affordable workforce housing passed the Minnesota Senate Finance Committee this week.
The comprehensive omnibus budget bill places an emphasis on rural broadband expansion, invests in affordable manufactured/modular housing and home ownership, and prioritizes value-added agriculture opportunities that directly impact farmers.
"This legislation focuses on repurposing existing resources to directly impact the bottom line of Minnesota farm families," said Westrom, chair of the Senate Agriculture, Rural Development, and Housing Finance Committee. "Low commodity prices have severely affected the agriculture community, especial dairy and grain farmers. This bill focuses on expanding markets and positively impacting farmers in the barns and fields, rather than growing bureaucracy in St. Paul."
Specifically, the bill makes a one-time investment in an innovative soybean processing and research facility near the University of Minnesota - Crookston; invests in the "Dairy Modernization and Innovation" program to help small dairy farms with small grants and low interest loans to finance the modernization of their farm infrastructure, such as robotic milking equipment; funds the "Dairy Producer Margin Coverage Premium Assistance" program to help dairy farmers with profitability; and increases "dairy development grants" to aid farmers in creating new business plans.
With Minnesota losing roughly one dairy farm a day in the past year, preserving the value-added dairy industry has been a focus at the state Capitol this year, according to Westrom.
The bill also funds the Minnesota "border-to-border" rural broadband expansion program at $30 million, a significant increase in the legislature's appropriation over the last biennium.
"From health care, to education, to small businesses, broadband access is essential to our way of life in the twenty-first century," added Westrom. "I consistently hear from rural community members that a lack of broadband limits their ability to flourish in Greater Minnesota, much like a lack of electricity did 75 years ago. This significant investment addresses this issue head-on."
The budget legislation also prioritizes the most affordable forms of housing in Minnesota and places an emphasis on workforce housing and home ownership.
"Historically, the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency has not invested in manufactured or modular housing," said Westrom. "By unit, it is the most affordable form of housing. While it is not a one-size-fits-all solution, this bill invests in expanding manufactured housing so that we can get the most affordable housing possible for the best value. When taxpayers are footing the bill, and the need for more affordable housing is so great, this course of action makes the most sense."
After passing the Senate Finance Committee, the bill now heads to the full Senate for consideration.