Afternoon at the Minnesota Capitol | Steve Timmer photograph
by Steve Timmer
Apr 4, 2024, 5:00 PM

We don’t see no externalities!

This is has been quiet for a while, which probably means that the agricultural lobby is hard at work. As Madison McVan reports in the Reformer, a bill was introduced to tax nitrogen fertilizer at the stunning rate of 99¢ per ton, “to fund an assistance program for people whose private wells are polluted” by nitrates. The bill, introduced by Rep. Rick Hansen, is HF4135.

If you look at the bill’s history, you’ll see that it passed out of the Agriculture and Finance and Policy Committee and was referred to the Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy committee, where it has sat for over a month. This is Rick Hansen’s committee. If Chair Hansen thought he had the votes to pass it, he would have heard it. He is quoted in the Reformer article as saying it would be difficult to pass.

The reasons for opposing the bill are the really odious part. “[Rural] Republicans on the [agriculture] committee expressed concern with adding another cost to farmers’ bottom line, as farm revenue and commodity prices are decreasing.” As a former rural kid, I can tell you nobody, I mean nobody, can plead poverty better than farmers (or the legislators who represent them). They do it on the way into the bank to cash their commodity subsidy checks.

Let me edit the quote for you:

Rural Republican legislators are just fine with passing costs associated with farming on to private well owners (and to public well owners, too).

These Republican Ciceros make remarks like this with straight faces and without a second thought. The costs shifted from farmers to private well owners and public well owners — rural municipalities who spend big chunks of their local government aid checks on water treatment — don’t figure in their calculus of fairness.

Costs shifted like this are called externalities. Polluters, especially, love externalities. Any time you can make somebody else pay for part of the true cost of your operation, it’s a win. Miners and farmers are two of externalities greatest champions.

Rep. Rick Hansen’s bill is not about burdening farmers; it’s about making them pay, in some small measure, for the messes they make.

Update 4/8: There is a new article in the Strib about nitrate pollution in southeastern Minnesota. From the article:

[A state task force to address nitrate measures and feedlot rules] could mean more regulations that could damage the small farms in the region, they said. The farmers drink the water here, too, they told officials, but they’re operating on razor-thin profit margins, and further rules could hurt the local economy.

The article doesn’t state who the “they” are, but it’s obviously the same don’t make us pay for our externalities bunch. When “they” talk about hurting the local economy, “they” mean “us.”

Update 4/21: Any yet another article about the bill clearing an important ag committee, although the tax has gotten a haircut along the way.

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