Ag lobby reflects on successes during Idaho legislative session
Ag gives high marks to recently ended Idaho Legislature
By SEAN ELLIS
BOISE -- The trepidation some farm leaders felt heading into the 2013 Idaho Legislature has faded, and most believe the recently concluded legislative session was good to agriculture.
"Overall, we would have to give this session very, very high marks," said Rick Waitley, executive director of Food Producers of Idaho, which includes most of the state's main farm groups. "Did we get everything? No. But agriculture has done really well."
Because redistricting resulted in urban areas of the state gaining more seats in the 105-member body, many farmers were concerned about how the switch would impact agriculture's clout in the Legislature.
Heading into the session, there was also a lot of uncertainty because there were 40 new legislators, said Travis Jones, executive director of the Idaho Grain Producers Association. But it turned out many of those new lawmakers had indirect connections to farming and strongly supported agriculture, he added.
"We felt really good about this new group of lawmakers," he said. "We got a lot of support from legislators by and large."
Food Producers will award its annual Ag All-Star award to 17 freshman lawmakers, a total that doesn't include those who served previously or switched from the House to the Senate. The award goes to those who voted mostly in line with issues important to FPI members.
While there weren't as many big, signature bills as there have been in some past sessions, there were a lot of moderately important bills dealing with agriculture this year, said Milk Producers of Idaho Executive Director Brent Olmstead.
"If you take the package as a whole, it was a pretty positive session for agriculture," he said.
Two biggest issues
Two of the biggest developments of the session -- one involving a bill that passed, the other a bill that died -- turned out to be closely related.
Lawmakers defeated a bill designed to protect agriculture by pre-empting ballot initiatives that seek to change Idaho's animal welfare laws, but they passed a bill that will ensure rural Idahoans have a bigger say on whether initiatives are put on statewide ballots.
A bill that would have defined animal torture passed the House but died in the Senate when the chairman of the Senate Agricultural Affairs Committee, Sen. Steve Bair, a Republican farmer from Blackfoot, refused to give it a hearing.
The provision is one of several that animal rights groups want to include in the state code.
Bair said he fears animal rights groups will keep pushing for changes to the state's animal welfare laws until normal production agriculture practices lose their exemption and he and others are drawing a line in the sand.
The author of the bill, Rep. Ken Andrus, a Republican cattle rancher from Lava Hot Springs and chairman of the House ag committee, believes the defeat of his legislation almost guarantees there will be a ballot initiative on the issue.
But lawmakers did support a bill that amends the state's ballot initiative process to force those seeking to place a voter's initiative or referendum on the ballot to gather the signatures of rural voters.
Idaho law formerly required supporters of proposed ballot initiatives to obtain the signatures of at least 6 percent of registered voters in the state to qualify a measure for the ballot.
An Idaho Farm Bureau Federation-backed bill that has already been signed into law by Gov. Butch Otter requires initiative supporters to gather the signatures of at least 6 percent of voters in at least 18 of the state's 35 legislative districts and the total number of signatures still has to equal at least 6 percent of registered voters statewide.
IFBF officials pushed the bill because of the large number of voter initiatives in other states dealing with agriculture. Farm Bureau spokesman John Thompson said the bill is designed to ensure farmers and other rural Idahoans are consulted before proposals that could affect them reach a statewide vote.
"People that are directly affected by initiatives like that deserve to have a voice," he said. "They shouldn't be excluded from the process."
The bill was backed by other farm groups, which view it as another line of defense against proposals that could be harmful to agriculture.
"This gives us a level of protection we have never had before," Waitley said. Ag groups would still have to spend money and time to defeat harmful proposals, he added, "but at least we feel a little better that we have this safety valve in place."
Agritourism and trucks
A bill that defines agritourism in Idaho code and grants farmers and ranchers who engage in agritourism limited liability protection from nuisance lawsuits was hailed as one of the major successes for agriculture.
The bill also ensures that engaging in agritourism does not change the property tax status of farm ground, which is taxed at a lower rate in Idaho.
The legislature also passed a bill that makes permanent a 10-year pilot project that increased truck weight limits on 35 state routes in southern Idaho, as well as a companion bill that gives the Idaho Transportation Department authority to add routes.
Increasing weight limits makes shipping Idaho ag commodities more cost-effective, said Mark Duffin, executive director of the Idaho Sugarbeet Growers Association.
"Our No. 1 priority this session was the truck legislation," he said.
Lawmakers also supported Otter's proposal to increase University of Idaho's agricultural research and extension budget by $1 million.
UI's agricultural research and extension budget will total $24.47 million in fiscal 2014, a 3.5 percent increase over the current budget. The additional $1 million is for operating expenses at the university's 12 research and extension service centers.
"It was a really big deal for everybody involved with agriculture to have that kind of support from the governor and legislature," said Idaho Grain Producers Association Executive Director Travis Jones. "It's a very good sign."
Lawmakers by a combined vote of 103-0 passed a law that ensures free food samples are not subject to the state's 6 percent use tax and overwhelmingly passed two bills designed to make it easier and less expensive for wineries to operate in Idaho.
They also passed a bill supported by farmers that is designed to reduce metal thefts, as well as legislation that will allow vehicles hauling ag commodities to exceed weight limits on state highways by as much as 2,000 pounds without being fined.
Agriculture did face some disappointments this session and the defeat of a so-called Ag Jobs bill that would have offered producers a maximum tax credit of $500,000 for adding value to Idaho ag products was at the top of that list.
The bill enjoyed widespread support among farm groups but never made it out of committee because of some lawmakers' concerns it was picking winners and losers by addressing only one segment of the economy.
The bill was also defeated in 2012 after passing the House and dying in the Senate.
"Probably the biggest disappointment was the defeat of the value-added tax credit bill," Olmstead said. "We spent a lot of money and time rewriting it and simplifying it."
Olmstead said farm groups will work with the bill's sponsors to rewrite it again and bring it back in 2014.
Livestock groups were only minimally successful in their effort to secure more money for wolf control efforts. The federal government has sharply reduced funding for predator control efforts in Idaho and these groups are trying to find ways to fill the gap.
Unwilling to punish the victims, lawmakers rejected a proposal by the Idaho Cattle Association that would have given industry the authority to raise a brand inspection fee on cow-calf producers by as much as 25 cents a head, with any additional money raised being used to help fund predator control efforts.
Under pressure from Idaho Fish and Game Department officials and sportsmen, they also killed a bill that would have increased the price of wolf tags by $4 and used the extra money to control wolves and compensate livestock owners for wolf-related losses.
They did pass a bill that will tap into IDFG's big-game depredation fund to raise money for predator control efforts. However, some years no money will be available. Based on the last seven years, an average of $48,000 a year will be available.
That bill passed both chambers and is awaiting the governor's signature.
"It's not a steady source of funding but ... it will help a little bit if it passes," said Stan Boyd, a lobbyist for the state's beef cattle and sheep industries.
Lawmakers rejected a bill that would have made it a misdemeanor for sheepherders to abandon their animals without first notifying their employer they are quitting. They also defeated a bill that would have allowed an out-of-state wine producer engaged in wine production in Idaho to serve on the Idaho Wine Commission.