BOISE — Idaho’s farming industry fared well during the state’s recently concluded 2017 legislative session.
The Idaho Legislature’s 105 members sided with agriculture on many issues, from water to field burning, dyed fuel, immigration and additional funding for research.
“We didn’t have any big-ticket items ... but we did have a lot of different issues” that legislators supported ag on, said Roger Batt, who represents several farm groups at the legislature.
Additional funding to strengthen Idaho’s transportation infrastructure was hailed by ag industry leaders as one of the session’s main achievements.
Food Producers of Idaho, which represents 40 ag groups, sent a letter to lawmakers pointing out how important transportation is to the state’s farmers and ranchers.
“Idaho’s agriculture industry depends upon local, state and federal highways to move product from farm to market and from market to consumers,” the letter stated. “We cannot maintain a viable and aggressive agriculture sector without an adequate transportation infrastructure.”
Legislators approved a bill that will provide $300 million to upgrade important transportation arteries, including widening a bottleneck stretch of Interstate 84 near Nampa that is an important thoroughfare for a lot of Idaho farm commodities, including grain, potatoes, cattle and sugar beets.
“There are a lot of ag commodities that travel that freeway,” said Sen. Mark Harris, a Republican rancher from Soda Springs. “I think the transportation bill was a big plus for agriculture.”
Another big win for the industry was a bill that codifies into state law a 2007 Idaho Supreme Court ruling on who owns stock watering rights on federally administered land.
Siding with two Owyhee County ranchers, the court ruled that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management can’t own the rangeland water rights because it doesn’t own cattle and therefore can’t put the water to beneficial use.
Senate Bill 1111 opens the door for potentially thousands of Idaho ranchers to file deferred claims to those rights. Companion legislation lays out the process for filing a claim.
A large chunk of Idaho is federally owned and water is the key to using that land, Harris said. “Those bills protect those water rights that people depend on.”
A bill that would have done away with Idaho’s dyed fuel program and required people who use the diesel fuel, such as farmers and ranchers, to pay the taxes on it up front and apply for a tax refund never made it out of committee.
Dyed fuel is used heavily in agriculture and is exempt from state and federal taxes because it’s only for off-road use.
“That was a ridiculous idea to begin with,” Idaho Farm Bureau Federation Director of Governmental Affairs Russ Hendricks said about the proposed bill to end the program. “We were very glad that bill was withdrawn.”
Idaho lawmakers approved an additional $1.85 million for University of Idaho’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. The money will be used to fund major lab renovations and new graduate student housing at some of the college’s ag research stations.
“These upgrades — plus the addition of housing for graduate students — are desperately needed at many of our research and extension centers throughout Idaho,” said FPI Executive Director Rick Waitley.
CALS also got $10 million for its proposed $45 million livestock and agricultural research facility in the Magic Valley area.
Legislators approved an 11 percent increase in the Idaho State Department of Agriculture’s overall budget, with most of the additional money going to buttress efforts to prevent quagga mussels from invading Idaho waterways.
The legislature also approved $750,000 that will be used by the ISDA and Idaho Brand Board to develop animal tracking software to electronically manage animal identification numbers and livestock movement data.
The system will allow the two agencies to switch from a paper- to computer-based system and will involve no new rules or regulations, said Idaho Brand Inspector Larry Hayhurst.
Legislators supported a bill designed to ensure the number of allowable field burning days in Idaho isn’t drastically reduced and approved $500,000 in ongoing funds that can be used by farmers to implement voluntary best management practices to improve water quality.
Idaho’s dairy industry also helped beat back an immigration enforcement bill that some farm groups worried could have had a chilling effect on the agricultural industry’s foreign-born labor force.
The legislative body also supported four bills backed by Idaho irrigators challenging Oregon’s attempt to reintroduce endangered fish into the Snake River watershed in Idaho.