Ag's cabinet seat in doubt

Matthew Weaver/Capital Press Washington Department of Agriculture Director Dan Newhouse talks to the audience during the Inland Empire Oilseeds grand opening celebration in Odessa, Wash., on Wednesday, Sept. 2.

Washington may roll department into another to save cash

By DAN WHEAT

Capital Press

The Washington State Department of Agriculture could lose its cabinet status in an effort to streamline natural-resource agencies and save money.

But Dan Newhouse, director of the department, said he and virtually everyone he talks to in the agriculture industry favor leaving the department as it is.

"The industry is almost 14 percent of the state's economy and one of the largest employers," he told Capital Press.

He said a "subcabinet group" of agencies involved in natural resources was scheduled to report to the governor and commissioner of public lands Friday, Nov. 13, on pros and cons of several options. No recommendation will be made at that time.

The options include making the Department of Agriculture part of a "super department" of all agencies dealing with natural resources, rolling the Department of Agriculture under another department or leaving it as a stand-alone cabinet agency, Newhouse said.

Reorganization of natural-resource agencies has been discussed by those agencies since June at the direction of the Legislature and Gov. Chris Gregoire, he said. It was prompted by the recession and the stretched state budget, he said.

"Agriculture impacts many communities statewide. I think people see that and like a state agency dedicated to an industry that is so important," Newhouse said.

A former state legislator and a Sunnyside farmer, Newhouse said he's talked about the issue at several meetings around the state and had good industry response through a public comment period that ended Oct. 29.

"For the most part, interest can be summed up with one line: to leave the Department of Agriculture as it is," he said.

The industry is concerned about losing its voice and the state paying less attention to it, he said.

"My interest is making sure the department will be able to continue to provide essential services to the agriculture industry, no matter what it is called or where it is located," Newhouse said.

In an Oct. 28 letter to Gregoire, the Washington State Farm Bureau said it wants to see fewer costs and duplicative regulations on farmers but believes a stand-alone ag department is crucial.

John Stuhlmiller, the Farm Bureau's director of government relations, said the chances of the department losing its status "are pretty slim because we wouldn't necessarily see any cost savings, and that's supposed to be the standard."

He said the main money-saving option available to the state is reducing staff, and there's no huge desire to do that. He said putting the department with another one could actually create more upper-management.

Kirk Mayer, manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House Association in Wenatchee, said the association believes strongly that the department should remain at cabinet level.

He said commodity inspection and pesticide licensing are examples of services the department provides to the industry for fees.

"It's fees for service. It's almost entirely self-funded, so you're not saving anything by merging it with another agency," Mayer said.

Agriculture needs a cabinet-level seat to provide direct comment to the governor and to other cabinet-level agencies, he said.

"If rolled into another agency, the state wouldn't be as responsive to industry crises or challenges," he said.

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