Posted: Thursday, December 13, 2012 12:00 PM
Lobbyists trade views on possibilities at state, national level
By DAN WHEAT
YAKIMA, Wash. -- The farm bill, fiscal cliff and upcoming food safety regulations were discussed at the annual meeting of the Washington State Horticultural Association.
Equally interesting was an analysis by Jon DeVaney, executive director of the Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association, of agriculture's plight in a state dominated by liberal Democrats. A safety valve, he said, may be the state Senate.
The association's lobbyist, David Ducharme, said a tour last summer of Eastern Washington agriculture by liberal Democratic legislators from Seattle backfired in that their takeaway was, "look at all this untaxed wealth."
Already, Ducharme said, they are looking to see how many sunsetting ag tax exemptions they can let expire.
"So we have to remain ever vigilant about that," he said. "They give tax breaks for aerospace and high-tech, but not ag."
But DeVaney said the Senate may be a brake on things too anti-agriculture.
At the end of the last session, he noted, three moderate Democrats aligned with Republicans for more budget cuts to balance the budget. One of those Democrats was not re-elected but Republicans gained a seat so could keep the same margin with the other two Democrats, Rodney Tom of Bellevue and Tim Sheldon of Shelton, DeVaney said.
The balance of power in the Senate is being negotiated and won't be known for several weeks, he said.
"If there is an ideological majority for a more responsible budget, what other issues might be acceptable to them?" DeVaney asked.
And while the state approved gay marriage, marijuana and gave 56 percent approval to President Barack Obama, 137,000 more votes than for Obama went for the tax-restricting Initiative 1185, DeVaney said.
"So what voters are saying is they want Democrats but they don't want to pay for them. We don't have an Occupy Wall Street electorate," DeVaney said.
He noted that Gov.-elect Jay Inslee, a Bainbridge Island Democrat, campaigned on efficiency and that agency fees are not subject to I-1185. The state Department of Agriculture and other departments are under pressure to increase fees, he said, so growers should watch for that.
Regarding the farm bill, Nancy Foster, president of U.S. Apple Association, warned a one-year extension of the current farm bill in the lame-duck session of Congress would not include specialty crop funding that has benefited tree fruit. Once funding is lost it won't return, she said, so a new, five-year farm bill is preferable.
At issue is annual funding of $50 million for the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, $200 million for the Market Access Program, $70 million for Specialty Crop Block Grants and more, she said.
Speaking via video message, Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said growers need certainly of a five-year farm bill and he's "cautiously hopeful" it can be done before the end of the year.
Several speakers noted the Obama administration has held off releasing new food safety regulations until after the election. Hastings said he voted against the regulations as too burdensome for what's already the safest food supply in the world.
"But it's now the law," he said, "and I will closely monitor the release of the new regulations. They should be targeted to specific crops and should not include apple growers for regulations that pertain to lettuce."
Foster said she doubts Congress can reach a big agreement to avoid the fiscal cliff of tax hikes and spending cuts by Jan. 1 but that some smaller accord will be reached to try to avoid a total cliff that would send the stock market down.