Senator Gary Dahms and Representative Paul Torkelson were in Sleepy Eye on Friday, Jan. 26 to hear from constituents at a town hall meetings.

Senator Gary Dahms and Representative Paul Torkelson made the rounds of area towns on Friday, Jan. 26 to hear from their constituents in a series of town hall meetings. Their first stop was at the REA in Sleepy Eye, where Bridging Brown County hosted breakfast snacks and coffee at 7:15 a.m.

The usually packed room was somewhat empty, with perhaps a dozen people in attendance. With the press release announcing the meeting arriving too late to publish—until the day before the meeting—the small crowd might be attributed to the usual attendees not knowing about the event. Or, maybe, there are not many hot-button issues this year.

Senator Dahms said the first issue for the legislator’s attention when the session begins on Feb. 20 will be funding the legislature. He reminded the audience that Gov. Dayton vetoed funding for the legislative body shortly after the end of the 2017 session. Despite going to court over the matter, it was not settled.

“We were able to find the money and have been operating on a shoestring budget. So, first thing we will do when we go into session, is we will pass a bill—the same as what we had last year for the budget for the legislative body,” Dahms said. “The Governor said he will sign the bill, so we will probably pass it on the first day, send it over to the House and they will pass it and then send it to the Governor—hopefully he will sign it and we’ll move forward.”

Rep. Torkelson agreed that he hopes the Governor signs the legislative funding bill. “He’s said he would, but there’s also been some indication he might like something in return, and I don’t think we’re in a position to give him anything in return at this point,” Torkelson said. “That’s last year’s work.”

Dahms had mentioned a need to look at state taxes in regard to the new federal tax bill that was passed. Torkelson said that is something they need to look at to maintain the status quo in the state tax system. “Some of those changes could be dramatic if we don’t address them, sooner rather than later,” he said. “So, I hope we can adjust state tax laws to accommodate the change at the federal level, so we don’t have a negative impact for some of our taxpayers.”

Torkelson said he still chairs the house transportation committee and one of the things they have been spending a lot of time on is MNLARS—the state’s computer system that issues tabs and titles and license plates, a new system rolled out in July that is still not working properly. He mentioned the problem will roll right into the Real ID system that is supposed to be put in place this year. “The state hired a new person to run that department,” said Torkelson, “and we’ve been having hearings and will put pressure on them to get that fixed.”

He said transportation funding is always a hot topic and the Corridors of Commerce program has a fair amount of money. “Not enough to do everything, but enough for one fairly large project in greater Minnesota,” said Torkelson. He mentioned the Highway 14 project, that is planned to someday run from New Ulm to Rochester as four lanes, and that funds for portions of that have been requested. “MnDOT decides which projects get funded,” he said. “We expect them to announce their decision soon.”

Farmer Greg Bartz asked about the nitrogen rule, which Torkelson had briefly covered earlier—saying it was not in effect yet. Bartz pointed out that farmers don’t know what exactly it is and that Brown County has been a “hot bed” recently after county commissioners decided not to take state money for well testing—specifically testing for nitrates in three townships. Bartz opined that the only reason the state wants to test farmers’ wells is to blame any elevated nitrate levels in well water on application of nitrogen in farm fields. He said there hasn’t actually been any research that shows a correlation, rather that any problems generally lie in the individual well, such as the well casing leaking or surface water running in. He asked what can be done to get the Department of Agriculture to be more careful with nitrate rules.

Torkelson said it is a very controversial issue and a challenge because nitrogen moves more freely with water than other nutrients. He also agreed that private well problems are more likely due to a poorly structured or poorly maintained well, so that differentiation needs to be clearly identified. However, he said farmers should test their wells and have been able to have them tested for free for many years.

“Anyone who has concerns, should get their water tested, I think that’s appropriate,” said Torkelson. “The effort by the department to use private well data to support their nitrogen rule changes is what’s inappropriate and that’s where the focus needs to be. We have a lot of work to do there, to educate the public about how farmers are using nitrogen more efficiently than ever before . . . it’s a scientific issue and also a political and social issue that we in agriculture need to figure out how to properly address, in a way that makes sense, and at the same time demonstrate the we do care about the water. The last thing I want to see and I’m sure the last thing any farmer wants to see is their nitrogen leaving the farm and getting into the ground water or surface water. We paid good money for that nitrogen and we want it to grow the crop, not send it elsewhere in the environment. That’s the story we need to tell—how technology helps us do it more accurately and more efficiently than ever before so we get the right amount in the right place at the right time.”