Government by the people seems to be alive and well in the agricultural community. And unless you’re a member of an organization with a lobbyist or a strong volunteer advocacy committee, you may not fully recognize the behind-the-scenes work done on your behalf.
Our Washington State legislature convenes every January, and prior to that opening, businesses and nonprofit groups statewide establish priorities against not only their needs, and wants, but against political realities. A basic reality this year, in a session that is to be only 60 days—presumably adjourning March 11—is the state budget.
But first, let’s get a lay of the land even though as you’re reading this we are well into the session. Our lobbyist, Jean Leonard, who is also the executive director and lobbyist for the Washington Wine Institute, provides the grape and wine industry with periodic readings from our state capitol.
This is the second year of a second term for Governor Christine Gregoire. Democrats continue to control the House and Senate significantly. House Republicans picked up the seat left vacant by the late Rep. Bill Grant (D); Democrats still hold 62 seats in the House, to the Republicans’ 37. Senate make-up remains the same, with 31 Democrats and 18 Republicans. Lieutenant Governor Brad Owen, a moderate Democrat, will preside over the Senate, and Attorney General Rob McKenna (R) continues his second term.
The state’s budget woes will again dominate activity in Olympia. During the 2009 session, the legislature closed a $9 billion (that’s B) budget gap primarily by utilizing (one-time) federal stimulus funds and making deep cuts to education, health care, and human services. The entire operating budget is roughly $30 billion, so a $9 billion dollar “shortfall” was substantial. The revised revenue forecast for the 2010 session shows another $2.6 billion short through 2011. In December, Governor Gregoire released a proposed budget, eliminating the Basic Health Plan, all-day kindergarten, Local Education Assistance funding for poor and rural school districts, the General Assistance Unemployable program, plus significantly cutting higher education spending (again).
The governor at that point publicly “disowned” her budget, saying the cuts were too severe and devastating. She called on the legislature to find revenue to supplement at least $1 billion of the cuts and reports suggest that the Democratic leadership in both chambers is on board with sending a tax package to voters. Everything is on the table and at risk for tax increases. Business tax credits currently on the books are in danger of being eliminated or suspended.
With this cheery setting going into the session, the wine grape growers association was one of nearly 40 agricultural and food organizations that gathered in Ellensburg in December to establish common interests. The platform recognizes that legislators have tough budget decisions facing them and these groups wanted to ensure that they’re part of the solution. With Washington State in fiscal crisis, agriculture needs to position itself as an economic driver and part of the reason that the state will enjoy economic recovery. Even though the global recession has contributed to difficulty in accessing financing, rising input costs, and fluctuating prices, Washington’s ag sector has remained steady in both employment and exports. Agriculture is a critical component in the recovery of our statewide economy. As local and foreign economies recover, because agriculture is a major economic driver, it can help lead the state out of these tough economic times. Our $32 billion food and agriculture industry is 13 percent of the state’s economy and employs 160,000 people. Accordingly, the statement of priorities coming from that Ag Summit in Ellensburg noted the need to:
1.Promote agriculture’s role in the economic recovery by not increasing taxes, fees, or regulations, which would hinder the ability of Washington’s farmers and ranchers to remain sustainable.
2.Ensure an adequate supply of water for agriculture by eliminating impediments to efficient water usage, continuing to develop new supplies, and removing legal uncertainties related to current and future water use.
3.End excessive state regulations that result in higher labor costs, reform the workers’ comp system to make it more effective, and enhance programs for seasonal and full-time workers in order to promote a legal and stable work force.
4.Foster sound environmental outcomes by recognizing the benefits derived from retaining agricultural operations on the landscape and encouraging producers to voluntarily employ additional stewardship measures.
5.Ensure that our transportation system provides an efficient farm-to-market product distribution network.
6.Require state agencies to complete an Agricultural Impact Statement in advance of any action, so that impacts to farmland are properly identified, and avoided or minimized.
7.Promote and support agricultural research, extension, and commodity-specific programs funded through the state universities and Department of Agriculture.
Agriculture can help with the recovery, and we hope the state legislature is sensitive to what we bring to the table.