Minnesota's first new agriculture commissioner in 15 years doesn't expect major policy changes in his department even as the state struggles to plug a $6.2 billion hole in its next budget.
Dave Frederickson, a former state senator and former president of the National Farmers Union, said his agency traditionally has tried to be nonpartisan, and that his predecessor, Gene Hugoson, is an old friend who has worked to ensure a smooth transition for the Agriculture Department from GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty to Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton.
"A transition between two friends always goes nicely. And so Gene was really, really helpful, and the staff has been wonderful," Frederickson told The Associated Press on Thursday.
Dayton tapped Frederickson, who had been Sen. Amy Klobuchar's agricultural outreach director, to replace Hugoson, who had served under three governors: Republican Arne Carlson, independent Jesse Ventura and Pawlenty.
Both Frederickson and Hugoson were first elected to the Legislature in 1986 and worked together on farm issues, though Hugoson served in the House. At 66, Frederickson said with a laugh that he probably won't hold the seat as long as Hugoson did.
"It's an opportunity to work on behalf of farmers from Minnesota," he said. "I've spent much of my life doing that, and I look forward to the next four years. I thought long and hard about it and thought ... this is the right spot for me."
The new chairman of the Minnesota House agriculture committee, Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said he was thrilled with Dayton's choice of Frederickson, calling him "a strong advocate for agriculture" and "a class act."
“Agriculture is one of the few segments of the economy that's doing well now. So we want to make sure we don't damage that in any way.”Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson
The Minnesota Department of Agriculture's work includes protection services such as food safety, pesticide and fertilizer management, plant protection and laboratory services; agricultural marketing including export and promotional programs; and assistance programs.
Frederickson's department accounts for only 0.29 percent of the state's total budget, and gets about 60 percent of its budget from fees or federal programs rather than general fund revenues.
The department has already absorbed significant reductions in recent years and Frederickson said he expects to be asked to make additional cuts in the next budget, though he said he doesn't know how deep yet. Many of the agency's fee-based and federally supported programs are mandated by state or federal law so they might be shielded to some extent, he said.
"The governor's going to set the tone here, not me, not the department," he said. The commissioner also said he will be meeting with officials in Minnesota Management and Budget this week to get a better idea of what's in store as Dayton prepares his first budget.
"Any way shape or form you do it, it's going to be tough," he said. But he said the department will see a significant number of early retirements this summer that should yield savings, and some reorganization is possible.
While much will be up to the GOP-controlled Legislature, Frederickson said he gets the sense that lawmakers are "fully aware" that agriculture is one of the few segments of the economy that's doing well now. "So we want to make sure we don't damage that in any way," he added.
Hamilton said that while his committee will look for possible efficiencies it will not skimp when it comes to protecting the public.
"It is our obligation to make sure we uphold the integrity of the food supply," he said.
The Senate agriculture chairman, Doug Magnus, R-Slayton, said his top priority will be looking for ways to streamline the state's regulatory process and he'll need the commissioner's help.
"We've got to have a long discussion about that because a lot of us are trying to get an 'Open for Business' sign hung up in the state and under this current permitting setup that's just not happening," Magnus said.
Back when he was a legislator and farmer from the southwestern Minnesota town of Murdock, Frederickson was the chief Senate author for Minnesota's first-in-the-nation mandate that all gasoline sold in the state contain at least 10 percent ethanol.
That's still on the books, but Minnesota is coming to the end of another era with ethanol. The state still owes nine of its 21 ethanol plants just over $15 million to make up for part of their 20-cent-per-gallon "producer payments" that were promised back in the industry's early stages but deferred due to previous budget shortfalls. The state had planned to make the last of those subsidy payments in fiscal year 2012, which begins July 1.
"That probably will get dragged out again. I don't know. But obviously it's going to be on the table," he said.
He also said it will be up for debate whether the money that had been going to make those producer payments will be available in fiscal 2013 or future budgets to fund agricultural research and innovation programs, such as next-generation biofuels, as lawmakers earlier envisioned.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)