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Effort to pull Arkansas regulatory agencies under Agriculture Department ‘dead’

An interview with Arkansas Agriculture Secretary Wes Ward

The 2017 Arkansas legislative session has certainly been memorable for several agriculture-related bills. Nothing has been as controversial as HB 1725, legislation that would move key state regulatory agencies under greater control of the Arkansas Department of Agriculture.

As of Wednesday (March 22), HB 1725 has been pulled. “It’s dead, it’s gone and won’t be run again. That effort is over,” says Wes Ward, Arkansas Secretary of Agriculture.

Proponents of the plan said pulling things like the agencies’ HR and IT offices under the Agriculture Department’s umbrella would have saved the state $600,000 annually. Opponents worried about overreach and a creeping loss of autonomy – especially for the Plant Board – wanted no part and contacted lawmakers voicing opposition.

Two votes were held on the bill in the House. The first gained 30 aye votes with the second coming in with 44. Fifty were needed for the legislation to pass.  

On Wednesday, Ward spoke with Delta Farm Press about the bill, where things now stand and how it was misunderstood. Among his comments:

What’s the lay of the land on HB 1725?

“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.

If it isn’t coming back in the House, what about the Senate? Are they going to move anything through a shell bill?

“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.”

Will you potentially retool this, or revamp it, during the off-season and come back during the next legislative session? What’s the plan?

“That’s a good question. I don’t have an answer on that yet.

“I can tell you where I’m at. 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.

“But (doing things better) has been my priority from the beginning. I’d say Gov. Hutchinson is the same way. We’ve got to find better ways of doing things and be more efficient.”

I understand $500,000 of taxpayer dollars goes into the Plant Board coffers every year. Is there a chance that could be pulled and placed under the control of the Arkansas Ag Department?   

“No. That’s another area where people were upset about things and (I’d hoped) they’d have looked at the law, they’d have looked at the mechanisms in place.  I tried over and over. I sent letters to the rice industry, to the Crop Protection Association, the soybean association. I sent information to everyone we could explaining how these things work. I don’t know if they didn’t read it, didn’t believe me, or don’t believe in the Arkansas law.

“There are a lot of protections in place already. Regardless if this bill is going nowhere, those protections remain.

“Look at ‘special revenues’ in particular. Those are identified by Arkansas code and they lay out what the money can be collected for, how the money can be used. That hasn’t changed and wasn’t going to change under the House bill or anything else. Those special revenues still have to be used the same way.

“‘General revenue’ is pretty similar. Every year, we have to go through a fiscal year appropriations act through the legislature. It’s the legislature that says exactly how many employees we can have, how much money we can spend. It isn’t the governor saying, ‘Hey, we’re taking all your money.’ You have to go through a process and it’s the legislature that sets up the appropriations act every year.

“Beyond that we were adding additional language to the bill to further try to clarify ‘this money isn’t going to be used any differently than what it has been.’”

What about autonomy of the regulatory agencies? How did you address that in the run-up to the bill and going forward?

“The current structure exists and the current structure wouldn’t have changed under HB 1725. That was one thing the governor, I felt, made very clear to everyone involved. ‘I don’t want to change the makeup of the board and commissions. They play a very important role.’ He wanted those to remain the same, he said that from the beginning and that’s what we tried to do from the beginning.

“The bill didn’t change the boards, the commissions, their statutory or regulatory authority, didn’t change how members were appointed. It didn’t change any of that at all. Still, people made up information and said things that weren’t true. I don’t understand it, to be honest.”

How would you describe this experience? Educational? Painful?

“All the above. I’ll admit I’ve been a bit frustrated because this bill and our efforts was never any of the conspiracy theories – taking money away from people, taking power away from people. This was an effort by the governor to strengthen the ag industry of Arkansas. I don’t know of a better way to put it…

“For that to be turned around, for people to make accusations against the governor, to make accusations against me is where I’m frustrated. I’m frustrated people don’t see this as the governor trying really hard to help the industry.

“The governor knows how important agriculture is to the state. He’ll continue to work to support the industry to make it as productive and efficient as he can. I’ll do what I can to do the same. Regardless of who gets mad at us, we’ll continue to push for the ag industry and make it as strong as we can.

“An example of that is his recent trip to Washington, D.C., with all the other governors. Governor Hutchinson was the only one who talked about agriculture and trade with President Trump. (He was) the only governor to do that and people back home were saying ‘he’s trying to take power away from agriculture.’ Are you kidding me? He’s doing everything he can to support the industry. I wish more people would see that.”

Did he gain any traction with Trump?

“I think so and we’ve seen that with the U.S. trade representative and the different appointments (President Trump) has made who’ve said how important agriculture is. I think it resonated.

“That’s just me – I can’t put words in the governor’s mouth – but he’s advocated very hard for Arkansas agriculture.”    

Anything else?

“First off, I never thought this would have the reaction it did. This was a very simple efficiency measure. There was nothing more than day-to-day operations.

“We tried very hard to help answer questions, to clarify and let people know what was going on. That will continue. So, for the people who felt they were left out of the conversation, just call me.

“Every speech and event I attend, I say ‘call me. Here’s my phone number and email. Let me know.’ So, if there’s ever an issue, please call me. We welcome everyone’s feedback, insights, and very much respect the industry and the leaders in the industry.”    

TAGS: Regulatory
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