OLYMPIA — Washington lawmakers have raised fees to save the Department of Agriculture's brand program, settling for now an issue that divided the cattle industry for two years.
While beef cattlemen's groups endorse the new fees, the outcome disappointed the Washington State Dairy Federation.
The fee for inspecting branded cattle to verify ownership will increase by 10% to $1.21 per head.
The fee for inspecting cows that haven't been branded or fitted with a certain type of electronic tag will increase by 150% to $4 per head. So-called "unidentified" cows are common on dairies.
The higher fee presumably will motivate dairy farmers to identify their cows, a goal of animal-health officials.
Dairy federation policy director Jay Gordon said that's OK, but the fees aren't going to help trace diseases. Instead, the money will support an asset-protection program "our guys don't want, don't need, don't use," he said Friday.
Inspection fees were last raised in 2006. The agriculture department said the fees were too low and that it would have to close the program at the end of June if they weren't raised.
The department proposed higher fees two years ago, but the cattle industry didn't fully support the proposal, so lawmakers passed on intervening.
Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, said lawmakers couldn't put new fees off any longer. "To keep the program viable, we need to do something this year," she said. "Everybody had to give a a little."
She was the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 5959, which won the support of the Washington Cattlemen's Association, Cattle Producers of Washington, Washington Cattle Feeders Association and meat processor Agri-Beef.
Warnick said she will look at how the state could help producers identify cattle and for auction yards to have the equipment to scan electronic tags.
"We want to make it as easy as possible on the people who are impacted the most," she said.
The bill raises most fees, including those collected at feedlots and slaughterhouses, by 10%. A flat $20 fee to call out an inspector will replace a time and mileage fee.
The bill also will let all cattle transactions to be reported electronically and for producers to use department-trained private inspectors, rather than relying exclusively on state employees.
The fee for inspecting unidentified cattle will jump to $4 from $1.60.
The dairy federation protested the $4 fee, and the House agriculture committee lowered it to $3. An agriculture department analysis, however, found that the program would run a deficit after a year.
On an 84-12 vote Thursday, the full House accepted the fees already passed by the Senate. The bill number is Senate Bill 5959.
Rep. Sharon Shewmake, D-Bellingham, said the legislation is unfair to dairies. "The fees are falling disproportionately on the dairies in my district," she said.
Beef producers argue that dairy farmers can avoid the $4 fee by identifying their cows with brands or electronic tags. Cattle identification is vital to preserving markets, and dairy cows eventually enter the food supply, they said.
The department projects that increasing the fee for unbranded cattle to $4 could raise an additional $587,766 the first year. Increasing the fee for branded cattle could raise an additional $32,926.
"The dairy industry is upside down about this, I understand that," said Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, one of the legislators involved in talks with cattle groups.
"There's been a lot of disagreement among all the parties," said Dent, who voted for the bill. "I think where we're at the session (which ends April 28), we came to the point where we didn't want the program to stop.
"I don't think it is equitable for all," he said. "At least it keeps the program alive."