Every legislative session provides opportunity for making progress on key issues for the tree fruit industry. Each session also provides ample opportunity for setbacks from powerful special interest groups. One vote in a House committee or on the floor of the Senate can end up costing producers millions of dollars in a passage of a bill that adds costly regulations, increases labor costs, or eliminates a valuable crop-protection material that reduces fruit quality. These are the types of issues we confront every year in Olympia. With
razor-thin profit margins for tree fruit producers, every issue takes on greater urgency.
Challenges and opportunities
This year, the legislative session provided plenty of challenges and opportunities. The tree fruit industry’s political action program under the direction of the Washington State Horticultural Association recorded a number of important victories in Olympia despite long odds for success.
We were able to make important advances on water policy, funding water storage projects, and containing unemployment insurance costs. We also prevented poorly drafted legislation, aimed at hurting the tree fruit industry, from becoming law.
Tree fruit industry groups have invested time, resources, and varying strategies into a state program that delivers positive results every year. Credit for this successful program goes to the four tree fruit organizations that work state-related issues under the WSHA nameplate: the Washington State Horticultural Association, the Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association, the Wenatchee Valley Traffic Association, and the Washington Growers Clearing House Association. The key to this effort is the willingness of these groups to work together. This allows the industry to speak on multiple issues with a single voice. The tree fruit industry approach in Olympia under WSHA is stronger and more united than ever.
Consider a few of the highlights of the 2006 session.
Columbia Water Management (HB-2860) is an issue that has confounded lawmakers and stakeholders alike. This proposal represents a compromise on a number of fronts, but addresses key issues for irrigated agriculture which
include the following:
—Makes water storage development a priority;
—Allows the state to seek “voluntary regional agreements” to help manage Columbia River water use;
—Provides funding for conservation programs and projects;
—Provides relief for the Odessa Aquifer area;
—Provides $200 million for water storage projects.
Over the years, the tree fruit industry has played a critical role in water discussions. We are a key member in a diverse coalition known as the Washington Water Policy Alliance. WSHA has been a leader in the alliance for a number of years. This diverse group of water users, which includes agriculture, industry, cities, and counties, played a critical role in developing and helping to pass the Columbia Water Management proposal.
Unemployment Insurance (SB 6885)—The tree fruit industry, under the WSHA nameplate, has been working on a number of labor issues for years. However, the thorniest of all remains unemployment insurance. It’s an issue that has been studied, reformed, and then unreformed so many times that most stakeholders have lost count.
This issue poses serious cost challenges to the tree fruit industry due to employer taxes, costly benefits, and liberal interpretations governing seasonal employment. The potential for huge tax increases being levied against tree fruit employers exists every time lawmakers review this program, which has become an annual ritual in Olympia.
This session posed an opportunity
for organized-labor lobbyists to pass a proposal raising employer taxes and unemployment benefit levels to new heights, putting an even greater burden on seasonal-labor employers.
Instead, stakeholders and legislators found common ground on the latest Unemployment Insurance reform proposal. Most importantly, the compromise prevents seasonal employers from absorbing a huge tax increase. The proposed package accomplishes the following:
—Caps unemployment tax rates for agriculture at 5.4 percent until January 1, 2008;
—Bases employee unemployment benefits on two-quarter averaging, meaning the two most productive quarters out of a year will determine a person’s benefits;
—Bases employer unemployment taxes on four-quarter averaging, meaning employers will pay less because taxes will be based on an employee’s average over the full year instead of just the two most productive quarters of work.
There were other important victories in both the supplemental operating and capital budgets for the tree fruit industry.
—Funding to develop and operate a state-of-the-art agricultural weather network system, totaling $800,000;
—Sales tax exemption for farm diesel, totaling nearly $4 million in tax savings;
—Funding to support the infrastructure for agricultural exports, totaling $1 million;
—Funding to begin a feasibility study on a reservoir project to help Peshastin irrigators, totaling $50,000;
—Funding over a four-year period targeting farmworker housing, totaling $4 million.
Keep in mind that these results were achieved despite steep odds for success given the make-up of the legislature, which, in my opinion, tends to favor urban over rural areas and the Puget Sound over eastern Washington.
The fact is the WSHA political action program could not achieve these results unless the four tree fruit groups were willing to work together in a coordinated effort under a single nameplate. The lament that the tree fruit industry’s state lobbying effort is plagued by bickering and unrest is myth, not reality. The fact is the four groups working statewide legislative and regulatory issues operate at a high level and in a coordinated fashion that generates meaningful results for the tree fruit industry.
A state senator summed it up best this year when he told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that the agricultural-positive session was due to “a united message.” The lawmaker targeted his remarks toward all agricultural groups working issues in Olympia. However, with the help of the other tree fruit groups, the legislator very easily could have been describing WSHA’s political program.
Jim Hazen is executive director of the Washington State Horticultural Association based in Wenatchee, Washington.