The 2017 Arkansas legislative session is now in the rear-view mirror along with, when it comes to agriculture, several smoldering bridges. Even so, to the happiness of many in the ag community, the Arkansas State Plant Board remains largely untouched.
While rumblings began in 2016, it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson began pushing passage of legislation (House bill 1725) that would place state agriculture sector agencies under greater control of the Arkansas Department of Agriculture through a “Type 4 transfer.” That department, critics of the reorganization point out, is run by an appointee of the governor.
On March 15, the bill passed out of the House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee on a voice vote and headed to the floor. By then, despite claims the move would save $600,000 annually, the legislation had gained a soundtrack of loud, widespread criticism.
During testimony before the committee, Wendell Stratton, head of Stuttgart’s Stratton Seed, said passage of the bill would mean the "state will then not only control all functions of the Plant Board but have jurisdiction of its surplus funds that are needed when an emergency situation arises.
“Industry has provided these surplus funds and it is dead wrong for the state to take these funds. We are told amendments are coming that stipulate the funds will be left alone, but I have as much faith in that as I did in 2005 when they told us that the Department of Ag would not affect Plant Board operations.”
Another critic, Don Johnson, the executive director of Arkansas Crop Protection Association, said “This Type 4 transfer would take the budget, personnel hiring, human resources and equipment from various state ag agencies and place them under the Secretary of Agriculture. That, in my opinion, would severely diminish the authority of the state Plant Board director. Besides that, the directors of these agencies should be able to hire whoever they think would best fit open jobs. They don’t need to spend time convincing someone above them why someone is the best candidate for a job.
“This really starting concerning me in the last couple of weeks.” The week of March 6, “Our group, the Arkansas Plant and Food Association (fertilizer), the Arkansas Agricultural Consultants Association, and Certified Crop Advisors were going to meet in Carlisle. Other groups – including aerial applicators and seed dealers – got wind of it and wanted in, as well. So many showed up, in fact, we had to move from the original place we planned to meet.
“Everyone is worried about this because it would change the structure of the Plant Board more than we want to see. We all voted to express our concerns and all the individual organizations will go to their boards and determine if they support or oppose the governor’s plan. Everyone at the meeting opposed HB 1725.”
In addition to the groups listed above, “Arkansas Farm Bureau is against the bill as well as most ag groups in the state. We’ve been contacting lawmakers with our concerns, writing letters.”
On March 17, The Arkansas House voted down HB 1725. Needing 50 votes to pass, the bill was defeated with 30 ayes, 31 nays and 39 lawmakers not taking a position. The vote hardly played a nail-in-the-coffin role. Three days later, on March 20, proponents of the governor’s plan came back for a second round of voting and tallied 44 aye votes -- still not enough to pass.
Shortly after, Delta Farm Press spoke with Stanley Hill, Arkansas Farm Bureau vice president of public affairs and government relations. Was it his expectation that there would be yet another vote in the House?
“No,” said Hill. “My expectation is that won’t happen at this point. It’s already been voted on twice (and failed). But we really don’t know where it’s going from here -- it isn’t over until it is. It could come back at any time. They could expunge the previous vote and revote.”
What were the key reasons for Arkansas Farm Bureau’s opposition?
“Our policy statement says would like for the Plant Board, Livestock and Poultry, and Forestry to remain independent in their functions. The Arkansas Ag Department, when it was established in 2005, consolidated some administrative functions. At the same time, the department was only for marketing and promotion (of the state’s agriculture) – non-regulatory.
“While (HB 1725) said the agencies could retain authorities to promulgate rules and regulations, it would consolidate power into the principal agency (the Ag Department). It would also give the authority vested in the agencies over their assets to the Agriculture Secretary. That’s where we have a problem. The agencies must maintain control over their assets – cash, property like equipment and vehicles.”
Was Hill concerned an attempt to pass something similar would come through the state Senate?
“It is a concern that it could be resurrected in some form or fashion. That could happen with a Senate shell bill.”
Asked if there would be an attempt to move through such a shell bill, Wes Ward, Arkansas Secretary of Agriculture said “No, at least not to my knowledge. There’s nothing I know of. Certainly, HB 1725 won’t be run again and there’s no bill on the Senate side that’d accomplish the same thing. It’s essentially done -- there’s nothing else that could potentially come up to fill that hole.”
Queried on the reaction to HB 1725, Ward said “I’m shocked – I don’t know if that’s even an adequate enough word to describe it – that people have gotten upset at that bill. There’s been a lot of misinformation and rumors and it’s unfortunate for the ag industry. There’s so much misinformation and false truths out there that have nothing to do with anything, in my opinion, with what people were concerned about.
“It was simply an efficiency bill that would allow the (Arkansas Agriculture) Department to operate better, that would save money, that would turn that money back to programs to make them stronger and, hopefully, make things easier for the ag industry. People got upset for reasons that were untrue.”
Despite Ward’s assurances, critics of the reorganization effort remained vigilant. They soon found concerns with both the House’s HB 2082 and SB 626 in the senate, which would have moved the regulatory agencies under the Department of Agriculture under a “Type 2 transfer.”
While the session ended without action on either of those bills, 2018 isn’t far off. And sure to cause heartburn to those happy with the current Plant Board set-up, Ward is keeping options open.
“The way we did things 15 or 20 years ago isn’t good enough. The day that we say ‘Hey, this is as good as it’s going to get with an Ag Department, we’re going to operate like it’s 1975,’ will be a disservice to the ag industry, a disservice to the general population of Arkansas. The general revenue we receive is taxpayer dollars. We’re doing a disservice if we say we aren’t trying to improve things.
“At a minimum, we will, as long as I’m in this position, always look to do things better. Will that manifest itself in a bill? I don’t know. I don’t know if it’ll be just things we can do on our own that won’t require legislation.”