Budget gap grows as hen house proposal advances

Steve Brown/Capital Press Dan Wood, right, speaks on behalf of the Washington State Farm Bureau during a House committee meeting on egg producer legislation. With him are Holli Johnson of the Washington State Grange and Jay Gordon of the Washington State Dairy Federation.

State lawmakers scramble to cut costs, address policy issues

By STEVE BROWN

Capital Press

OLYMPIA -- Washington's legislators face an even tougher task in balancing the state's budget.

The slow economic recovery has led chief economist Arun Raha to project $780 million less in tax revenues over the next two years than he previously thought.

The lawmakers must write a budget to fill in that gap using cuts or tax hikes. Officials put the cost of current programs and demands at $37 billion; Raha said revenue will be $32 billion.

Amid the tasks of balancing the budget, legislators continue to address policy issues. One that has proven divisive is a proposal concerning egg-laying operations.

Substitute Senate Bill 5487, sponsored by Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, and Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, requires egg producers to meet United Egg Producers standards, which lay out specific models for space, health, feed, temperature and predator control.

Animal-rights organizations are seeking a ballot initiative to require much more spacious -- and expensive -- housing for hens.

SSB5487 was approved by the Senate, 34-13, and was referred to the House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources. On March 22, the committee voted 9-4 to recommend the bill become law.

The bill now goes to the Ways and Means Committee.

In bringing the bill before the House committee on March 18, Schoesler said, "It isn't terribly complicated." The standards don't bring dramatic price increases for consumers, he said, and they keep options open for producers to meet demands for organic or cage-free eggs.

Jennifer Hillman, of the Humane Society of the U.S., said the bill does not improve animal welfare. Referring to "the quote-unquote enriched cage system," she said, "the American Humane Association deems this as humane. We don't."

She said her organization prefers a cage-free system for all hens.

When Rep. Kristine Lytton, D-Anacortes, asked her about the added costs to consumers, Hillman said, "About 11.7 cents a dozen."

Dan Wood of the Washington State Farm Bureau, disputed that number. Cage-free eggs cost from $3 to $3.50 a dozen, he said, "and we don't want to force that." Producers are already responding to consumer needs, he said.

Greg Satrum, president of the Northwest Poultry Council, said cage-free chickens have a shorter life span, "so more hens will have to live and die." The colony system "is the future of egg production."

SIDEBAR:

Other legislative action

* ESSB5748 -- Cottage foods are specifically defined, and operations that produce them may work from home kitchens if they do not exceed $12,000 a year in sales. (To House Ways and Means Committee.)

* SHB1254 -- University of Washington's Forest Resources Institute is directed to pursue coordinated research in both urban and rural areas. (To Senate Rules Committee)

* SHB1467 -- The definition of a water well exempts activities performed for soil or water testing or analysis. (To full Senate for second reading)

* ESHB1489 -- The sale and application of turf fertilizer labeled to contain phosphorus is prohibited, with specific exemptions. (To full Senate for second reading)

* SHB1538 -- Washington State Department of Agriculture is given flexibility on the fees it charges for inspections; also addresses traceability of animals imported into state. (To Senate Rules Committee)

* ESHB1886 -- A framework is established for cooperation among agricultural interests, environmental groups and county governments in protecting critical habitat areas. (To Senate Ways and Means Committee)

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