Shifts in districts, retirement may limit ag's influence

By JOHN O'CONNELL

Capital Press

Two of Idaho agriculture's greatest advocates will not return when the Legislature reconvenes next session.

In Idaho's House Agricultural Affairs Committee, Rep. Bert Stevenson, R-Rupert, has long been the unquestioned expert on water issues, said chairman Ken Andrus.

On livestock matters -- especially regarding branding and animal health -- Andrus leans heavily on Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot.

Stevenson, who made his living as a farmer, and Lake, operator of a Blackfoot cattle feedlot, are among five lawmakers on the 12-member committee leaving the House before next session.

Overall, Andrus predicts a House shakeup could lead to new members in 31 of 70 seats. He said 26 House members won't run, either due to retirement, challenges created by redistricting or opportunities to seek Senate seats. Many of the remaining seats will be hotly contested in the May 15 Republican primary.

Both Lake and Stevenson were elected in 1997 and have served the entire time on the House Agricultural Affairs Committee. Stevenson, who also chairs the House Resources and Conservation Committee, opted not to run because redistricting would have forced a primary race against friends in the Legislature. Lake said he's leaving due to a self-imposed term limit.

"I am confident of one thing. With the new redistricting and as these old legislators retire, we have less influence of agriculture. I don't look out there and see very many people who haven't been in the Legislature before running with ag backgrounds -- a few maybe, but not like Dennis Lake and Bert Stevenson," Andrus said.

Andrus believes Lake's influence has been evident because "if he doesn't like a rule, he can get it objected to by the whole House ag committee." Andrus considers Stevenson to be one of the Legislature's top two members on water law.

"The loss of Rep. Stevenson is major, major as it relates to water," Andrus said.

Lake said a few years after he was elected the Legislature passed one of its most significant bills for ag when it did away with a personal property tax on farm equipment.

"Oftentimes a person paid more in taxes over the life of machinery than he paid for the machinery itself," Lake said.

Stevenson, a former board member with the Minidoka Irrigation District, oversaw the process that led to the large-scale Nez Perce Water Agreement and has worked more recently to resolve Snake River Plain water conflicts.

He said those in agriculture must stay vigilant and work together to protect each other's interests.

Though his two sons now run the farm, Stevenson said he is looking forward to getting back on the tractor occasionally.

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