Washington State Capitol

The Washington Legislature adjourned the 2019 legislative session April 28. A Washington Farm Bureau lobbyist called it the ‘craziest session.’

OLYMPIA — A veteran Washington lawmaker reaffirmed that in his 25 years in the Legislature he’s never heard as much anti-agriculture rhetoric as he did this year.

Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, first made the remark in early March, halfway through the session, saying in a floor speech he was “disgusted.” Honeyford, who has a farming background and represents the Yakima Valley, said Monday the year stood out for proposals from lawmakers to “bite the hand that feeds them.”

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said.

The session ended with the Democratic-controlled Senate and House passing a two-year, $52.4 billion operating budget. The spending plan relies on $850 million in new or higher taxes.

Democrats held a jubilant post-session press conference. “This truly has been an epic legislative session of unprecedented scope and achievement,” Gov. Jay Inslee said.

Washington Farm Bureau director of government relations Tom Davis called it the “craziest session” he’s seen. He has lobbied for the Farm Bureau for eight years and worked in government for 21 years before that.

He credited Democratic leaders in the House and Senate with blocking or amending some of the bills that alarmed farm groups the most.

“It could have been worse,” Davis said. “They were throwing so many bad bills at us. When it all played out, it wasn’t as bad as we expected.”

The proposal that drew the most testimony from farmers was a bill to impose a head tax on foreign farmworkers.

The Employment Security Department said it needed the money to process applications for H-2A workers, verify a shortage of U.S. workers and investigate complaints.

Labor groups said ESD needed to beef up oversight to prevent workers from being abused. “There are farmworkers who are coming to our state and they are suffering from civil- and human-rights abuses,” said Sen. Liz Lovelett, D-Anacortes.

Farmers defended their treatment of workers, and farm groups argued there shouldn’t be a state tax to run a federal program.

Lawmakers didn’t impose the fee. Instead, they took $3.5 million from another ESD fund to administer the H-2A program for the next two years.

Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, said the move shifted the burden to non-agricultural employers. In two years if the federal government doesn’t come through with more money, McCoy said he will again propose fees on farmers.

Farm groups condemned in unusually strong terms a bill requiring growers to report to large retailers “any violations of employment-related laws and incidents of slavery, peonage and human trafficking.”

Former state agriculture director Jim Jesernig, now a lobbyist, said the bill made accusations too far-fetched for the National Enquirer.

The bill passed the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee, but stalled after that.

The Senate passed a bill to “incorporate environmental justice principles into the operations and activities of state agencies.” The bill put an unelected task force at the vanguard of setting state rules.

House Republicans proposed 27 amendments. The amendments included one that would first try out environmental justice in Seattle.

Another amendment would have added rural residents threatened by wildfires and predators to the list of “vulnerable populations.” Another asked the task force to explain the difference between “environmental justice” and “justice.”

Instead of debating those amendments, the House passed a bipartisan bill creating a task force to study how to improve the environment and make a report. The Senate didn’t take up the bill.

The Legislature passed several bills the Farm Bureau rated as a high priority.

A proposal to extend high-speed internet to rural areas was popular with both parties. Lawmakers OK’d letting hound handlers practice chasing cougars, and directed the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to manage conflicts between wolves and livestock differently in regions that have many packs.

Before next session, the onus will be on farm groups to invite legislators to learn more about agriculture, Davis said. “Truly, if we can get them out to a farm setting, there’s no better place to learn what it is to be a farmer and the challenges they face.”

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