Agriculture really is No. 1 in Washington.
After years of complaining about being overlooked and ignored by majority lawmakers west of the Cascades, farmers gained ground on nearly every major issue they brought forward during the 59-day legislative session, including:
*Sweeping unemployment insurance reform.
*Tax breaks on off-road diesel and equipment parts.
*A Columbia River management plan that includes provisions for additional water storage.
In 2004, the total value of Washington crops was $5.94 billion, and lawmakers clearly assured farmers that the state’s top industry didn’t go unnoticed this session. Whether the effort reflects long-term industry gains or election-year politics remains to be seen.
“There was, I think, on a number of these fronts, an effort to try and find some common ground,” said Jim Hazen, executive director of the Washington State Horticultural Association.
Perhaps nothing symbolized that effort more than the Columbia River management plan, which Gov. Chris Gregoire signed last month and praised as the tonic to end a 30-year stalemate over wrangling water needs in Eastern Washington.
The measure seeks to make more water available in the future by increasing storage in new reservoirs. It also allows the state to sign regional agreements with communities or other groups seeking new water rights in the near-term in exchange for mitigation efforts.
Some complained the bill was a backroom deal, negotiated by a select few stakeholders. But conservationists and farm groups alike hailed it as a major compromise.
Another water bill approved by lawmakers exempts farmers in the declining Odessa aquifer east of Moses Lake from the state’s use-it-or-lose-it law. The measure is intended to ensure that farmers who are forced to switch to dryland crops — or choose not to water crops to boost the aquifer _ won’t lose their water rights.
“I wouldn’t have bet on any of those happening going into the session,” said Sen. Mark Schoesler, a Ritzville Republican. “I’ve watched too many people work water too hard, too long, to get optimistic too easily.”
Ron Jirava agreed. The Ritzville wheat and barley grower and state legislative chairman for the Washington Association of Wheat Growers noted that there hadn’t been any movement on water rights for years.
“We did all right this session,” Jirava said. “No grand slam, but maybe a home run.”
Lawmakers made Washington just the second state in the country with biofuel and biodiesel mandates, to be implemented by December 2008. They also designated millions of dollars to biofuel low-interest loan programs to plant the seeds for the production, refining and infrastructure for alternative fuels.
Farmers, in general, resist mandates of any kind, which is why the Wheat Growers opposed that part of the proposal. At the same time, they welcome any effort to promote alternative fuel and energy alternatives, Jirava said.
“We’ll wait and see what happens. There’s still a lot of confusion, a lot of uncertainty,” he said. “It’s uncharted territory for most of us.”
The Washington Farm Bureau supported the biofuel standards as an incentive to pursue development in the industry.
“It’s very much a chicken or the egg situation,” said Dean Boyer, Farm Bureau spokesman. “Which do you have first, refining capacity or oilseed crops? You really need both to develop at the same pace to get the industry going.”
Lawmakers exempted off-road fuel from the state sales tax, effective immediately, to aid farmers struggling with rising diesel prices. Some estimated the move could save the average farmer about $1,500 a year. A separate measure exempted some farm equipment and machinery parts from the sales tax.
The Washington Cattlemen’s Association cheered passage of two bills to exempt private farm information from public disclosure: voluntary farm plans and information a livestock producer submits to the state for an animal identification program.
The group had made the latter a priority and called its approval the “crown jewel” of the 2006 session.
“Fabulous. Outstanding,” spokesman Jack Fields said in describing the session for cattlemen. “It was an extremely ag-friendly session.”
One big disappointment: Lawmakers declined to study the impact of the state’s minimum wage on job retention and development. Washington has the highest minimum wage in the country at $7.63 per hour.
However, most of the bills that passed were approved overwhelmingly by lawmakers.
“I actually believe that there’s a real recognition of the importance of agriculture to the state’s economy,” Agriculture Director Valoria Loveland said. “Usually in a short session, you get in and do a little bit of corrections you need to do and you go home. This time, some pretty heavy-duty stuff went through the Legislature.”
Schoesler credited farm groups for bringing lawmakers a united message about their needs this session, though he noted that 2006 is an election year. At the same time, he said he hopes conditions may be better for farmers in the future.
“I think we still have individual items we need to work out,” he said. “But I certainly hope it’s a little brighter day in agriculture where we’re not in as such dire straits and are in a position to be more competitive.”
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