Eradication bill clears Mississippi legislature

A bill to extend the boll weevil eradication's maintenance program is winding its way through the Mississippi legislature on its way to becoming law.

The legislation authorizes a change in the eradication effort's maintenance program from a period of five years to 10 years. The change would almost immediately affect cotton growers in eradication regions 3 and 4, who are in their last year of the eradication program.

Originally, a five-year maintenance program would have piggy-backed the five-year eradication program to insure the demise of the pest.

However, officials with the Mississippi boll weevil eradication program have asked state legislators to amend the boll weevil law and allow for a 10-year referendum with an annual maximum fee of $12 per acre, instead of the previously set $5 per acre grower fee.

The legislation authorizing the changes originally received state Senate approval Jan. 31. However, it ran into a few snags in the Mississippi House of Representatives. Negotiations ensued and by March 7 state representatives had amended and signed off on the measure, sending it back to the state Senate for approval. The amended bill cleared the Mississippi Senate March 14. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove is expected to sign the bill into law.

“We went ahead and passed it because we've just about got the boll weevil whipped and now is not the time to quit,” says Bobby Showls, vice chairman of the Mississippi House Agriculture Committee.

The approved legislation does include the requested extension of the eradication's maintenance program to 10 years, with a per-acre grower assessment of $12 per year. It also includes some of the changes made by the Mississippi House Agricultural Committee, including new language requiring an annual state audit of the eradication program to be reported to the state legislature.

“Although the eradication program is now being run well, our opinion in the legislature was that the program was run very shoddy to begin with,” Showls says. “We just want to know what's going on with the program, and we want to stay a little better informed if we are going to be involved.”

Also added was a clause prohibiting any future increases in grower assessments for the maintenance program. Specifically, the legislation says that no assessment under any subsequent referendum may exceed $12 per acre, and the eradication management board may only levy that amount “necessary to insure the financial stability of the eradication program.”

According to Showls, the amended version of the legislation mandates that any additional government funding secured by the Mississippi Boll Weevil Management Corp. be used to lower the $12-per-acre grower assessment.

The soon-to-be law also allows growers to petition for additional referendums on the program. A petition by at least 20 percent of growers in the region is required for a referendum, and there is a limit of one referendum per region per year.

As soon as Gov. Musgrove signs the bill into law, the Mississippi Boll Weevil Management Corp. will begin working with Mississippi Commissioner of Agriculture Lester Spell and State Attorney General Mike Moore to write the referendum that soon will be put before growers in eradication regions 3 and 4.

According to Kenneth Hood, cotton grower and chairman of the Mississippi Boll Weevil Eradication Management Corp., the process will take at least 60 days.

The referendum, which is expected to have some opposition, will provide Northeast Mississippi cotton farmers with the choice between a 10-year boll weevil eradication maintenance program or no program at all.

Proponents of the program have suggested that without a maintenance program, boll weevil populations in the area could return to pre-eradication numbers within a few short years.

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