Wheat growers hear lobbyists' take on 2010 Wash. priorities

By MATTHEW WEAVER

Capital Press

Representatives of the state's agriculture industry will meet in Ellensburg, Wash., on Dec. 16 to develop a unified agenda representing their priorities for the upcoming legislative session.

Self-protection during the state's budget crunch will be a main theme.

John Stuhlmiller, director of governmental relations with the Washington Farm Bureau, said four priorities were identified last year, including what he called a "do-no-harm" provision asking for no increases in taxes or regulations and no decreases in protections already provided to agriculture.

Next year, the state budget again will be the Legislature's primary concern, as it was during the 2009 session, he predicted.

When the House and Senate meet in January, they face a state revenue shortfall of $2.6 billion.

"It is going to be a very difficult session, because a lot of things put in place last time are unsustainable," said governmental relations consultant Jim Jesernig. "You're going to have to come up with a way to make some additional cuts, and there's a lot of opposition to anything that even runs up against that."

Jesernig spoke to the Washington Association of Wheat Growers during its annual conference Friday, Nov. 20.

To balance the budget, Jesernig predicted the Legislature would cut human services and education budgets.

The top concern among agricultural groups is whether new taxes will be passed, he said.

Initiative 960, passed several years ago, requires a two-thirds vote in the Legislature to adopt a tax and a majority vote for a fee. Jesernig said the Legislature has the power to require only a majority vote on taxes, making it easier to raise taxes.

"In a recession, that's really not the way to go about balancing something," he said.

A proposal put in place by a citizen's commission on tax preferences last year would essentially repeal an exemption for agricultural business and occupations tax by requiring a means test.

The action did not happen last year, but with such a large deficit, "It's going to be back on the table," Jesernig said.

Stuhlmiller said he hopes the state's leadership will see the wisdom of not bridling the industry.

"The impact on the budget is tremendous," he said. "If we can keep our exports up, if we can keep the ag sector whole and able to grow the product, it's way too important to the state's recovery to do harm."

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