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The biggest private company in America comes begging for Minnesota's help

Cargill is complaining about environmental regulations on its heavily trafficked Cargill Port in Savage, Minnesota.

Cargill is complaining about environmental regulations on its heavily trafficked Cargill Port in Savage, Minnesota. Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

The biggest private company in America is listening to shrimp.

Cargill, the Wayzata agribusiness giant, announced last month the launching of its iQuaticTM shrimp feed. Delivering precisely the right amounts at the right time “means larger, healthier shrimp and reduced waste,” Cargill explained.

The same release spelled out the company’s success so far in fiscal year 2017. Cargill is not so much a company as it is an economy: With $54 billion in revenue through the first six months of this fiscal year, the 150,000-employee company is keeping pace with the gross domestic product of Morocco, a country of 33 million.

An estimated 90 percent of Cargill is still in the hands of descendants of founder William Cargill and his son-in-law, John MacMillan.

There are about 1,700 Americans valued at $1 billion or more, according to Forbes. Fourteen of them are Cargill heirs. On the magazine’s list of the country’s biggest private companies, Cargill has held the No. 1 spot (ahead of Koch Industries) for 30 of the last 32 years.

Keep those figures in mind as you consider the testimony CEO David MacLennan gave to the Minnesota Senate Jobs and Economic Growth Committee last week. MacLennan was invited to testify along with the CEOs of Ecolab and Land O’Lakes, two local Fortune 500 companies.

MacLennan told senators he can “understand why big companies get vilified.” Then, as if to show just how well he understood, he started complaining.

Doing business in Minnesota “presents some challenges,” he explained. There’s the state’s top-tier income tax rate of 9.85 percent (third-highest in the nation), which kicks in at a combined household income of $200,000. As of 2014 that included only about 2.5 percent of Minnesota households, but an estimated 100 percent of Cargill heirs.

MacLennan was also concerned about the “elaborate and extensive” regulatory climate. “In general, permitting is getting more complicated, more time consuming, and more expensive.”

The fact is, Minnesota has taken steps to rapidly speed up permitting. In 2011, the state set a 150-day goal for decided permits by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). The goal for simpler projects was later set at three months.

How’re they doing? Not bad: 97 percent of MPCA permits for new or expanded construction were completed on time.

MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine says “general” complaints about regulations have been “pretty consistent” from the business community in the 38 years he’s been in government. But when he asks for specifics, they usually clam up. (Nor would Cargill provide any for this column.)

To be fair, MacLennan did mention a single specific project where Minnesota regulators were frustrating his conglomerate: Port Cargill, a sprawling, privately owned harbor in Savage.

Cargill ships tens of millions of bushels of grain from there each year. It’s the company’s responsibility to dredge all the stuff that’s kicked up from the Minnesota River bottom. Cargill’s sludge is stored on public land maintained by a local watershed district.

It so happens that in January, Cargill informed the Department of Natural Resources and the Army Corps of Engineers that it intended to start dredging a newly constructed mooring location for barges, and deposit that sludge in the water near its other docks.

Both state and federal water managers balked, saying additional dredging would require a new permit. DNR hydrologist Jennie Skancke says just dropping that sludge into the existing dock “doesn’t sound like the minimal impact solution that our rule and statute require.”

These details somehow escaped MacLennan’s testimony. Instead, he said vaguely, it has become “way more difficult” to get projects approved, and alluded to “these often onerous permitting processes” in Savage and elsewhere.

He asked for the Legislature’s help.

Sen. Jeremy Miller (R-Winona), the committee’s chairman, thanked MacLennan for that offer, saying he “really, really appreciates” all his company does for the state.

Toward the end of the hearing, the CEOs of these massive companies were asked to give final thoughts on what the state could do for them. Doug Baker, of Ecolab, talked about improving education and narrowing racial disparities to create a more qualified workforce.

MacLennan stuck to his guns: “Helping with regulations... and the tax environment” would be swell. “It doesn’t just benefit the big companies. It also helps the small companies as well.”

Bingo. If Minnesota wants to grow its economy, it should figure out how to help a start-up become the next Fortune 500 company, and not how to help the Cargills become the Medicis.

Follow Cargill’s own initiative. Listen to the shrimps of the business community and see what they need. Let the killer whales fend for themselves.

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