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Does Arkansas need ag department?

Claiming the plan was necessary due to a threatened bottom line and court rulings, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee recently announced his desire to place 53 state agencies under 10 “umbrella” departments. One of those umbrellas would be an Arkansas Department of Agriculture. Huckabee's proposal, part of a total restructuring of the Arkansas state government, was met with statewide surprise.

“This was a shock. It was a closely held plan that wasn't leaked. In fact, several of the governor's cabinet members knew nothing of this until he met with them the night before it was announced,” says Rodney Baker, Arkansas Farm Bureau's director of governmental affairs.

Not surprisingly, the “pro” and “anti” camps girded for battle rather quickly. Both camps' objective is to sway the opinions of Arkansas legislators who are now in session.

Arkansas Farm Bureau

As the most powerful lobbying group in the state, the Arkansas Farm Bureau (AFB) has long been against an Arkansas Department of Agriculture (ADOA) and believes it would only create additional, unnecessary bureaucracy. Huckabee's fight for an ADOA, says observers, will mean either defeating the AFB or somehow bringing them into the proponent fold.

If his staff's comments are any indication, Huckabee is not interested in stoking AFB's anger. “Our folks are talking with AFB daily on this. I don't see them as something to defeat as much as someone we must work with,” says Jim Harris, who works in the governor's communications office.

So far, whatever has been said in the daily conversations hasn't swayed AFB.

“We feel the agencies already in existence cover everything a new department would. We see no need to incur the additional expense it would take to birth such a department,” says Baker. “If you take the governor's total proposal, this issue obviously becomes bigger than just a department of ag. He would have some of the ag-related agencies at the proposed department and some he's putting under another umbrella.”

For example, Baker points out that the Arkansas Soil and Water Conservation Commission along with the Arkansas Forestry Commission would be placed with geology, oil and gas and the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

“Why would you do that with the forestry commission? The forestry commission — a production-based stewardship agency — would be placed with an environmental regulatory agency? It's just a bad fit and we think ag will get less attention with this set-up rather than more.”

There's a lot more going on besides a department of agriculture, says Baker. At the same time the governor wants to restructure state government, he also wants to accomplish education reform. Arkansas is under a court rule saying the state's education system is inadequate, unequal and must be fixed. Huckabee's answer to that is consolidation of many school districts. The resulting uproar has caused a majority of the state's attention to be on education, not agriculture.

“I don't think many of the legislators have had the opportunity to dig into the particulars of all this. Legislators are taking a closer look now. Obviously, streamlining government resonates with citizens and most people desire less government expense and bureaucracy. But when you start to look at this, there are many concerns.”

Here's one: most of the Arkansas commissions — such as the Arkansas Poultry Commission and the Arkansas State Plant Board — that have regulatory authority would be moved to a new ADOA under a “Type 2” transfer. What that means is the power they now have will be taken away and put in the hands of the new secretary of agriculture. All regulatory authority will rest in the hands of one man; something the AFB says is a bad idea.

Would any savings from combining agriculture-related agencies stay in agriculture or could they end up somewhere else?

First of all, Baker says, about 93 percent of the Arkansas state budget is eaten up by education, human services and prisons. Everything else — commerce, transportation, agriculture — accounts for a mere 7 percent. So any savings from agriculture would be tiny. Regardless, there have been no estimates released as to what savings would accrue and where those savings would come from.

“Instead, the governor's plan seems to be ‘Let us restructure. We'll have these 10 agency heads and over the next few years they'll shepherd these agencies and there will be savings at some point,’” says Baker.

“Part of the structure in the state with all the agencies is there is a lot of give-and-take between the agencies. That's a positive because you get input from a variety of people from a variety of jobs and areas of the state. If all the power is shifted, the interaction and ironing out of disagreements may not happen. Right now, there's a lot of citizen interaction with state government. If this restructuring goes through, that will disappear.

“Our membership has looked at the creation of a department of ag yearly for over two decades. There are some people in ag who feel it would be a good thing, but we don't for the reasons already cited. That message is resonating out in the countryside.”

Baker and AFB have allies in their fight.

“The way the bill is now written, all power over regulations and compliance hearings would be transferred to an Arkansas secretary of agriculture. He could be benevolent and allow the boards under him some authority as his deputies. Or, he could say, ‘Forget it. I don't want boards under me doing anything,’” says Ron Harrod, a lobbyist for Arkansas aerial applicators.

Right now, all the power in the bill is vested in one person: the secretary of agriculture, says Harrod.

“We prefer that the industry regulate itself,” he says. “Almost every segment of agriculture is on the 15-member plant board. Every segment of animal husbandry is on the livestock and poultry board. The soil and water commission pulls people in from almost every industry it's involved in. The forestry commission has a similar set-up. The point is, if the secretary of ag deemed it so, all that expertise wouldn't be in use. Yeah, so far, Farm Bureau is right on this one.”

Proponent's view

Jimmy Wallace has been an advocate for an Arkansas Department of Agriculture for years. But if it's done — and Wallace thinks it's “a must” for the state — then it must be done correctly.

“There should be considerable thinking into what agencies should be combined into it. The way it is now falls short. As it stands now, Huckabee's proposal leaves many agencies out from under the ADOA purview. Of course we need the forestry service and soil conservation services under there. The new farm bill deals so much with soil conservation and water resources.

“But we don't need to create this thing without it being right. We don't need it just to say we've got it. We need to do this in a way that will be meaningful to the state in the long run,” says Wallace, who farms near Lonoke, Ark.

And Wallace fears that any savings from combining agencies will end up in Huckabee's education package.

“My feeling — and I've testified to this before legislative committees — is that we should take whatever savings that occur and create a true division of marketing. We must have this to market Arkansas products and get out and hustle. That's a must.”

The state has all the regulations and laws it needs, says Wallace. What it doesn't have is anyone out there, promoting products for the Arkansas farmer. “That should be what an ADOA spearheads. If we can't sell the stuff we're growing, what's the point?”

Wallace disagrees with AFB's claims that creation of an ADOA will create greater bureaucracy. “It does no such thing. It would mean combined agencies that would offer greater services. For instance, when a farmer goes to Little Rock to deal with some work-related problem, he might have to visit 13 different agencies in 13 locations. The ideal would be to have an ADOA with all these agencies in one place. Let's do this right.

“People are going to struggle with giving up their fiefdoms. But for the betterment of the citizens, it must be done. I'm excited by the possibilities. Things must change. If everything we've been doing over the last 25 years is so good, why are we all broke? If what we have is so good, why are we all going out of business? Let's get past the rhetoric and do something good for once.”

If an Arkansas Department of Agriculture were created, Rhode Island would become the lone agricultural state without such a department.


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