Agriculture and other natural resource industries had some success in the 2020 Idaho Legislature session, which adjourned March 20, but bills legalizing hemp and changing the makeup of the Idaho Potato Commission were left behind.
Social-issue legislation and an increased need to adjourn amid COVID-19 concerns dominated the late stages of the session, which started Jan. 6.
Earlier action focused on an update and streamlining of all the state's administrative rules, reducing the volume from 8,000 to 6,000 pages, and revamping property tax policy in light of higher home values in growing population centers.
The Idaho Farm Bureau Federation said in a post-session report that despite pressure from urban homeowners, “we were successful in avoiding any shift in property taxes onto farmland or other commercial properties.” Lawmakers voted to form an interim committee on property taxes.
Food Producers of Idaho Executive Director Rick Waitley said the effort to streamline regulations greatly altered the session’s traditional schedule but will benefit agriculture and natural-resources sectors.
“Even in our narrow corner, it is very advantageous,” he said.
Ag and resource agencies’ budget appropriations passed mostly unaltered from pre-session recommendations. So did the budget for the University of Idaho agricultural research and extension system.
Lawmakers this year restored the state Wolf Depredation Control Board’s budget to historical levels after reducing it a year ago in light of a surplus. Idaho's Fish and Game Department received additional wolf-related resources.
Lawmakers also approved various proposals presented as benefiting production agriculture or related businesses.
Some, like a bill on aerial pesticide application, reduce regulatory burdens. Others, like a new authorization for bonded wine warehouses and an expansion of inmate employment opportunities in agriculture, address recent needs.
One successful bill clarified the method by which agricultural land is assessed, emphasizing the use of local data rather than aggregated statewide information.
Planes used mainly in production ag and conservation were added to the list of commercial aircraft exempt from the state’s 6% sales tax. Lawmakers passed a stock-water rights bill benefiting ranchers.
However, some bills considered important to agriculture did not pass.
The legislature for the second consecutive year rejected a proposal to legalize industrial hemp in keeping with the December 2018 Farm Bill. The House State Affairs Committee narrowly voted to hold the bill instead of sending it to the floor.
That left Idaho and Mississippi as the only states where the crop is illegal. Farmers supported the bill. Law enforcement expressed concern it would increase exposure to marijuana-related issues.
Another bill that did not advance aimed to provide farmers and others with the same access to parts and diagnostic tools that equipment dealers and authorized repair providers have.
A bill that would increase proportional representation on the Idaho Potato Commission, and make other changes, did not receive a committee hearing. For more than two years, some potato growers in eastern Idaho have supported increasing representation from that high-production region. But the bill seemed to lack industry consensus.
Waitley said the rules review and some legislation showed there has been some confusion about commodity commissions, which are quasi-state agencies that collect an assessment from industry and spend it on marketing, research and producer education.
“The message to our industry was that there is a real need for education,” he said. This is important as Idaho’s demographics change due to growth and as new lawmakers are elected this year.
Food Producers has tracked at least 13 seats in the 105-member legislature that will turn over next year because incumbents chose not to seek re-election, not counting those aspiring to switch from the House to the Senate.
House and Senate members from both parties this year formed a Farm, Ranch and Timber Issues Caucus, also focused on rural issues.
Waitley expects the new caucus to raise awareness and “become a statement of pride for a lot of legislators eventually.”