Senate coalition protects ag
Industry advocates say new leadership kept damage to a minimum
By STEVE BROWN
OLYMPIA -- The Republican-led coalition that took over the Washington Senate during the recently ended session "absolutely" benefited farmers and ranchers, legislators and agricultural lobbyists say.
When two Democrats -- Rodney Tom of Medina and Tim Sheldon of Potlatch -- decided to caucus with the Senate's 23 Republicans, it added a new dynamic in state government: a divided Legislature, with Democrats retaining control of the House and the GOP-led coalition in charge of the Senate.
"We did no harm," said wheat farmer Mark Schoesler, leader of the Senate Republicans.
"It's been years since we felt like we had a backstop if a bad bill came out of the House," said Tom Davis, director of government relations at the Washington State Farm Bureau. Having different leadership in the Senate has made for more meaningful conversations, he said.
The new balancing act benefited small businesses "and anyone who has a wallet," Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen's Association, said.
Dan Wood, director of government affairs for Washington State Dairy Federation, called the coalition "a grand experiment (that) seems to have resulted in some decent compromises in the Senate."
A supermajority held by either party is not good, he said, "But when parties have to work together in bipartisan fashion, generally you get better public policy."
In general, conservative lawmakers are more cognizant of the challenges facing agriculture, Field said, and they played a pivotal role in many issues.
One of those issues was management of the state's growing wolf population.
Legislators heard 11 wolf-related bills, some with similar intentions. They included establishing a funding source to compensate owners for livestock lost to predation, removing a cap on that compensation, authorizing county governments to declare imminent threat to commercial livestock and to authorize the sheriff or other county agent to kill wolves, and requiring state listings of the gray wolf as endangered or threatened to be limited to areas of the state where it is also listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.
One bill, HB1258, introduced by Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, aimed to ensure that all Washingtonians "share in the benefits of an expanding wolf population."
"The pro-wolf people typically love them as long they don't have to deal with them," he said in January. "It's a chance for the people in those areas to step up and actually deal with the real problems happening in northeastern Washington."
Only one wolf bill passed, Senate Bill 5193, which establishes a voluntary means of helping compensate livestock owners by increasing the cost of specialized license plates. It passed both houses with large bipartisan majorities and was delivered to Gov. Jay Inslee in the closing hours of the regular session.
SB5193 was not on Inslee's signing schedule at deadline, but his spokeswoman, Jaime Smith, said he would likely sign it.
Davis said Inslee has been "pleasantly supportive of landowners' rights to protect their livelihood," and he expects SB5193 will become law.
He said the Legislature "punted" on a SB5187, which would allow the lethal removal of wolves caught in the act of attacking pets or livestock. A letter from legislators prompted the Washington State Fish and Wildlife Commission to adopt an emergency rule allowing livestock and pet owners to shoot wolves caught attacking their animals in the portion of the state where wolves aren't protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.
When legislators return to Olympia May 13 to begin a 30-day special session, they will face the task of closing a $1.2 billion budget gap and putting additional money into K-12 schools in response to a Supreme Court ruling. The state spends about $13.6 billion of its current $31 billion two-year general fund budget on schools.
"The key difference is the House and the governor are obsessed with $1 billion in taxes," Schoesler said. "(The majority coalition) showed how we can do that with no new taxes."
In that budget is money to modernize the state's capacity to trace animal diseases. Wood said a $1 million state investment would pay for itself many times over. The impact of a single case of BSE -- bovine spongiform encephalopathy -- in 2013 was $1 billion, he said.
The money would fully fund the up-front development of a traceability database, upgrading the current brand system. Wood said that after the first two years, the livestock industry will fund that operation through transaction fees.
Also in the budget is money to get the Voluntary Stewardship Program going. Wood said 28 counties have opted into the cooperative framework for addressing land use issues. Only two counties have been funded, he said, and he hopes the state can redirect federal conservation money into that.
Michele Catalano, executive director of the Tilth Producers of Washington, said she was glad to see money in the budget to restore the direct marketing program at the Washington State Department of Agriculture. That program was eliminated by the Legislature in 2011.
"It's not at the $500,000 requested, but $250,000 was reinstated," she said.
Heather Hansen, with Washington Friends of Farms and Forests, said she'll also be watching how the WSDA fares in the budget. She's also hoping the funding for fairs remains stable. "Many senators in the coalition caucus understand the value of fairs for community youths."
Schoesler said the $8.8 billion transportation budget, which has been approved, includes $2.6 million for maintenance on the CW line, a branch of the PCC rail line, formerly Palouse River and Coulee City Rail Line that serves hundreds of Eastern Washington farmers.
Catalano said a bill to give small farms the same home site property tax exemption as larger farms was amended to affect only Thurston County.
"I couldn't understand why. The cost is very miniscule," she said. "It already applies to larger growers and handicaps smaller growers."
Legislators should be trying to reduce barriers to agriculture, she said. "It's a no-brainer. It should apply statewide."
Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, a Central Washington orchard owner who crafts much of the state's water-related legislation, said despite some "modest" successes, "I don't think we as a Legislature have a real sense of how to effectively balance demands for water. We're backing into it one crisis at a time."
He said he is optimistic about progress made with the Yakima Basin Integrated Water Resource Management Plan as well as legislative support for continued progress in the Odessa subarea. Both houses have inserted $32 million into the capital budget for Odessa work.
Davis said the Farm Bureau's priority is to ensure long-term viability of agriculture by keeping a rein on tax policy and regulations.
"House Bill 2038 flies in the face of that," he said. Despite some changes, the bill increased a Business and Occupation Tax that affects the state's ports and its competitiveness in imports and exports. "Every time there's a change of hands, there's a tax applied."
That bill is part of the education funding issue that proposes narrowing or eliminating tax preferences and extending taxes set to expire.
Most ag lobbyists said they would give a "B" or "B-plus" to the Legislature this session, because it did little damage.
"We had some good discussion and advanced excellent policy," Field said.
Holli Johnson, who represents the Washington State Grange, also gave the lawmakers a "B," "though there are still a lot of balls in the air."
She said she has been impressed by bipartisan efforts in wolf management and a growing awareness of small farm dynamics among legislators.
Davis said a "bright spot" was the approval of a bill requiring the state Department of Ecology and Department of Fish and Wildlife to identify the peer-reviewed science, scientific literature and other sources of information relied upon before taking significant agency action. Previous sessions have considered similar bills, but they did not make it out of committee. This year both bills passed unanimously without amendment.
"Interesting what a difference a couple of years can make," he said.
Some ag industry representatives said lawmakers should get an "incomplete" on their report card.
"They didn't do all their assignments and turn in their papers," Davis said.
Overall, the Legislature did little damage to agriculture.
"There are no new taxes and regulations," Wood said. He said a bill heard in the Senate would have added $10,000 in taxes to the average dairy farmer, "but we explained that's not good policy."
Hansen said a bill on pesticide drift got nowhere, and lawmakers did not advance a bill to require labeling of genetically engineered foods. That issue will show up on the November ballot.
As agriculture faces mounting pressure, Wood said, lawmakers have to be aware of the impact of their actions.
"Today's farmer will have to feed twice as many people with less land, fertilizer, water with coming climate change," he said. "Why tax and regulate ag more? You need to make it more enticing to get next generation to stay on the family farm. Legislators need to think on local, state and global levels."