JAMESTOWN, N.D. — Below is a transcript of the Facebook Live conversation with NDFU president Mark Watne and Member Advocacy Director Kayla Pulvermacher from the Mandan office after the conclusion of Governor Doug Burgum’s first State of the State on Tuesday, Jan. 3. To watch a replay of the video, click here.
KAYLA: Thank you for joining us. Today was the first day for the North Dakota legislative assembly. Mark and I attended the governor’s speech. He talked a lot about technology, and not just technology from the usual thought process, but also with education and how important that is. He also talked a lot about agriculture. I was wondering what you thought of what he said in terms of agriculture.
MARK: I thought it was really interesting that he really addressed it. There’s been a lot of campaigning going on where agriculture wasn’t in the forefront. To have him recognize that our farmers are really good at what they do, that the market prices aren’t reflective of what we need to produce with the cost of production — or that he seems to have the desire to add value to our products here — and try to develop some avenues here for our farmers to make some more money. I thought that was a really good start.
KAYLA: I was also really interested in what he had to say about education, because he spent a significant amount of time on education. I’m curious to see what this thought process is on integrating more technology into education and what exactly that means.
MARK: A lot of people don’t realize North Dakota Farmers Union is really an educational organization. He talked about the leadership and communication skills of our kids, and that’s one of the things we teach at our camps and our EPIC classes. We’re really hoping we can work with him on developing that. Nothing better than trying to educate your young adults and students to get them better prepared to be much more innovative, because we need that in North Dakota.
KAYLA: And I’m also interested in what he has to say about how we can better help our teachers because we have a lot of members that have teachers on the farm, a spouse or a joint partner on the farm. It’s a really important thing to our organization. I think the thing that surprised me the most about what he head to say was his remarks about property taxes. He seemed to want to step away from what we’ve been doing with property tax buy-downs. Right now, we’ve been buying down the local political subdivisions, the cost of education — that’s something we’ve really been advocates for. We’ve always called for 70 or 75 percent of education being paid for by the state. We’ve seen it go over that amount now. I’d also like to know what he thinks would be a better approach and how that will affect the taxpayers of ND. Will our property taxes go up, will they stay the same? What will happen?
MARK: We tend to look at in a pragmatic way at Farmers Union. We believe in a three-legged stool of sales, income and property taxes. Currently, the property tax is out of whack in comparison to the others. We do have a budget crisis partially brought on by, I think, our own fault in being too aggressive in tax cuts and then having more spending programs. We should really reverse the process. Determine the programs we need, and then pay for them. It’s a little bit backwards to do it the other way. We need to address that third leg, property tax, and try to bring some balance and equity to where everybody’s paying a fair share for those services that each of us find very important. I’m looking forward to his plan. I agree to some extent it hasn’t really worked well. The intent may be right, but the success of what’s been happening has not been great for property tax relief.
KAYLA: So for this legislative session, Farmers Union comes up with a list of priorities. This is our something our policy and action, our grassroots, actually helps us come up with. Some of the things our members have instructed us to make sure are priorities are, again, upholding the current corporate farming law in this state. We think its vitally important for our family farmers. One of the things that’s going to be the most interesting for our members is defending the need for state agricultural research. There is a huge concern in the agriculture community that state agricultural research is going to take a backseat to a lot of the legislature’s priorities. And if there is ever an issue that really unites the agriculture community, this is one.
MARK: I think that’s key, and the governor said it very well. We need to invest in the technology. People don’t really understand how much work is done in research. NDSU is one of the key researchers. We have other institutions in the state that do a good job, too. From an agriculture perspective, we need that technology. While we can’t live on these low commodity prices — we need higher prices — we can help ourselves by having the right technology available to try to make us a little more competitive. This is something we can’t ignore. It’s an investment, not a cost. We need to keep it in mind that it’s essential. I spend lot of time at NDSU working with people to try to ensure that there are other opportunities for farmers and ranchers in North Dakota.
KAYLA: That’s an issue in which we know we walk the walk at North Dakota Farmers Union. We invest a significant amount of dollars in research, not just private research but mostly at NDSU.
MARK: We do a lot through the genotyping center we’re part of with the National Corn Growers and State Corn Growers. With the Quentin Burdick Center for Cooperatives, we invest in cooperative development. We have CAPTS (Center for Agricultural Policy and Trade Studies) that does studies on trade, farm bill and crop insurance. We’re over there quite a bit. We help with the hiring, and we’re on committees that help work for things. We’re quite committed to enhancing agriculture in North Dakota through the research system and land-grant university. It’s a very effective tool, and we shouldn’t ignore it.
KAYLA: Another priority we have for the organization is monitoring funding for state programs that provide quality of life and education for rural areas — specifically, rural health care. We see a growing epidemic of opioid addiction. Not something that just happens in urban areas, but our rural areas too. That was another thing that Gov Burgum talked about in his address, the need to help those who can’t help themselves with addiction. Also (a priority), advocating for landowner rights and improved reclamation practices. Last session, we saw a pilot program that was being done through the agriculture department to really bring the agriculture community for landowners, family farmers and the oil industry together to deal with the issues we have in this area. That program has brought some success. Because it’s a pilot program, it’s probably going to be under some huge weight as in, is it going to be funded? And then protecting current property tax relief in North Dakota. That was something the governor talked about. What that’s going to look like is something we’re really interested in.
MARK: Hopefully, we’ll be at that table to be able to have that dialogue. It’s pretty important for the farmers and ranchers in North Dakota.
Much of the talk has been around the budget. How will this affect our members directly (e.g. agriculture issues) and indirectly (non-ag issues)?
MARK: We talked about research and our land-grant university taking some extreme cuts. We’re limited on how many people we have in the agriculture economic department. We’re gonna see some limitations on the teaching part and the research part because our state government isn’t fully funding that. Along with that, they’re gonna start reaching out to private industry. There’s nothing wrong with private industry research, but it tends to leave out the dialogue. That’s why need that independent government support to do a better job to make sure research is not in the interest of one or two companies. It’s in the interest of society as a whole. Secondly, here’s the balance: we have a system where we’re short on dollars for what our spending is. A lot of that goes back to our counties and schools. If you’re gonna enhance that or make it more efficient, it takes more money or you have to cut things. That’s worrisome at a time when we need more education and to adapt our system to meet the needs of our kids. This is going to be tough. It’s going to impact you, it really is. This is something the average citizen should really pay attention to. It really becomes a priority for you in where there they choose to cut and how we make ends meet.
As for NDFU personnel, what’s the schedule for how long staff is there representing the membership?
KAYLA: It’s a question I get a lot: what’s it like to be a lobbyist for NDFU? It’s a lot of long hours. It’s a lot of conversations that need to be had with legislators and your colleagues with other organizations. It’s making sure you can meet legislators and get to know them on a personal level, so you can connect with them, not just on philosophy but as people. We have a couple other lobbyists. Mark is here as much as he possibly can be, but he also has the day to day running of the organization. Myself, I tend to do most of the lobbying. But we also have Agricultural Strategist Dane Braun who will be here quite a bit. Kristi Schlosser Carlson is here to fill in the holes and also represent the insurance company.
MARK: It’s important to understand the best lobbyists are bringing that great information to the legislature. It needs to be extremely accurate and representative of the organization you’re there to support. That’s the key. Kayla has the support of the organization along with Dane and others. Hopefully, if necessary, we’ll have a lot of members come in. We tend to do that. That’s how Farmers Union believes we’re most effective — when we bring the grassroots in. We support our team with that grassroots effort.
KAYLA: We’re so lucky to be in an organization that has so many active passionate members. Because we have grassroots, when we need someone to come in and deliver a message that you and I don’t have the ability to deliver. When we can bring in legislators’ actual constituents to say, “This is how it affects me day to day,” it’s really effective.
Recently, oil is forecast to hit $60 a barrel, and Job Service has reported that oil companies are slowly ramping up again by looking for workers. Should the legislature plan for a small increase in oil tax revenue or go with the current economic environment?
MARK: Whenever you develop an industry, you have to invest back into it, like the agricultural research dollars. If it’s necessary for us to maintain the excellent energy industry in this state, there has to be a certain amount of revenue to come with it. There’s a lot of concerns over what happens to the environment, infrastructure and schools for these new workers. I think we have to consider everything on the table, but the priorities need to be set. Once you have your priorities set, you fund it at the levels necessary to make it work. A lot of people might not like how I say that, but that’s how almost every business operates. You decide what you’re going to do, figure out how to fund it and then get the dollars to move forward. That’s how the state tax issues have to be developed at the same time.
KAYLA: I think it’ll be interesting to see what happens in terms of budget because of the change we’ve had in governors. Here you have Governor Dalrymple, putting in what he thought should be proposals for the budget. Now Burgum has his own. He says there will be an amendment to the budget. Also, he talks about zero-based budgeting. I think your gonna see legislators being quite pragmatic in terms of increasing the budget. I’ll be surprised to see where they’re really gonna put the dollars. With agriculture, I know the community will push to make sure we continue to have research dollars. One day without dollars being spent on agriculture research is one day too many because things change so rapidly. It’s something that we will be spending a lot of time on.
Are there any plans to address the opioid epidemic that is growing in rural areas of our country? Will there be support for educating our children about dangers of using drugs, and do we have room in treatment facilities specifically for opioid abuse?
MARK: I think this is one you have to watch because the governor did make a statement about this. He talked about an individual he had met that was addicted to (drugs). He said he wants to address it. He sees it as a problem for our prisons, health care and the high cost to society. I would like to believe we’re going to do that. This is a question of budget. If you create a program, are you willing to fund it? If not, it won’t get the attention a lot of people may want. If this is something a lot of people want, they should be calling their legislatures.
KAYLA: Farmers Union continues to be a huge advocate for rural health care. This is a huge cost for our members that’s more indirect, but it affects them directly in terms of checkbook.
MARK: We took it upon ourselves with the Affordable Care Act, rules and things had to be put in place. That’s what we do at Farmers Union. When there is a need for membership, we tend to deliver it. We have a lot of people hired to go out and talk to people about what’s available, help insurance costs stay in line and to have a good health insurance program. I’m quite proud we address those issues on a regular basis. When something comes up, we tend to try to deliver what our members need.
KAYLA: And really important for us is to make sure voices are heard in terms of cost and how can we make sure rural areas aren’t forgotten. It’s an issue that doesn’t just affect urban areas, it’s something that’s really important to our members, too.
With the governor’s address, what about the statement on abundant food and productivity of farmers?
MARK: We have some problems in agriculture in understanding how the system really works. To build a food system based on what we get paid on overproduction I don’t think is the right approach. Food is almost as necessary as air and water. We spend a lot of time trying to protect them, and we forget about food because we have been so greatly successful and our family farm system has worked so well. We don’t have enough food in the world yet. We’re being discounted because we have too much supply in too few places where there’s money. I think we’ve got to stop pricing on that one bushel of production area that doesn’t necessarily need that production, and we have to start looking at different areas. When we get to that dialogue, and people understand the consumer is really getting extreme benefit from what we call cheap food policy, and farmers are rewarded on increasing their production and everything they do is about increasing production — at end of day, all we’re doing is chasing this vicious circle that puts farmers out of business and doesn’t necessarily benefit the consumer if we’re getting to the point where we’re relying on other people to produce our food. We’re working on a program. We want to start the dialogue in looking at how we price. People don’t eat another meal simply because the price of food is down a bit. It doesn’t go away. It’s different than a rebate on an auto industry where you can sell more cars. Even car manufacturers do supply management. I’m not suggesting we go down that path of supply management, but I do think we have to think about pricing mechanisms for what we truly need as a national interest in maintaining the inexpensive food system we have.
KAYLA: And I think this is an another area where research is really important. Diversification in North Dakota. I think that’s one of the things that’s really important in terms of helping producers especially during this hard time. I come from a family farm. When there are things going on, I call up my dad and ask him, “How are these things affecting you?” I talk to him about how its affecting the family farm and what he’s growing and being able to diversify. Getting into these new commodities that haven’t been traditionally grown in North Dakota has really helped him and our bottom line as a family farm.
Another question was asked about funding of county and township roads.
KAYLA: Last session, we saw funding for state infrastructure increase significantly. This session, I think we’re going to see a real stop in terms of how much we’ve been spending, and I think that’s a bad investment. Infrastructure is so important to our state. We have increased oil production. We have increased commodities. We can haul a lot more commodities with trucks than we used to be able to. Not spending those dollars on infrastructure, considering how much we’re growing in this state, may be a real hindrance for us.
One last question here on property taxes in terms of what producers pay and the farm-home exemption.
KAYLA: This is one issue that could potentially be a big one for the agriculture community and one that unites the community. In the past, we’ve been able to join with the North Dakota Farm Bureau and North Dakota Stockmen’s Association in terms of believing this is really important. There are some folks that say it’s not fair we have this exemption.
MARK: There are exemptions in tax policy all over the place, in some respect, done for specific reasons. The farm in the countryside is really a great asset to the community, the farmstead also. It’s really about how much property taxes that land owner and farmer pay into the system. It’s a disproportionate share, so it’s one way to help balance that out. Plus, they live in that community and support that community with their sales tax dollars. It’s a tool to keep that population out there. They have to have their own sewer systems, they pay a lot more for their water systems and pay a lot more for everything else. If we eliminate some of that benefit of living out there, we’re gonna drive more people into our communities and give away that rural life that many of us think is very important to the state of North Dakota.
KAYLA: What we always say about family farms is it’s a way of life, but it also is a business. We’re supporting our small business quite a bit. There are rules in terms of who can claim this exemption. There is an off-farm income guideline in terms of how much you can make. Family-farm dollars turn around in the community quite a bit. We’ll be watching that closely and defending it.
— North Dakota Farmers Union
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