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Dennis Nuxoll (right), Western Growers’ vice president of government affairs, discusses the political landscape in 2019 at the recent Almond Conference in Sacramento, Calif., as the Almond Board of California’s Bunnie Ibrahim listens.

Experts: Dem dominance will impact Calif. ag

Infrastructure bill is possible, but groups expect to lose most battles.

Whether or not November’s midterm elections qualified as a Democratic wave nationwide, they surely did in California, where the party’s virtual legislative lock will have significant implications for agriculture in 2019, experts say.

At the national level, the Democrats’ takeover of the House of Representatives provides some hope for an infrastructure bill that could include billions of dollars for water projects, says Dennis Nuxoll, Western Growers’ vice president of government affairs.

But as newly elected California Gov. Gavin Newsom settles in with a legislative supermajority, farm groups wary of regulations and confiscatory water policy will “need to pick and choose battles,” says Dennis Albiani of California Advocates, Inc., whose consultants provide legislative advocacy and other services to clients.

The groups may lose 60 percent of those battles, but the 40 percent that they win will be important, he says.

“We can no longer wish and hope,” Albiani recently told a standing-room-only workshop audience at the Sacramento Convention Center. “You need to use tools the Almond Board (of California) uses and make good relationships.”

Nuxoll and Albiani were among panels of experts who gauged the changing political landscape during the first day of the 48th annual Almond Conference, held Dec. 4-6.

Nuxoll came to Western Growers with more than 15 years of experience in Washington, D.C., as a legislative aide for Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and a lobbyist for the American Farmland Trust. Early in his career, he was often given agricultural clients while working for law and lobbying firms and developed an expertise in their issues, he says.

A House wave

He notes that while Republicans gained seats in the U.S. Senate, the Democrats’ pickup of 40 House seats was the chamber’s fourth largest flip since World War II. California’s caucus now has 46 Democrats and only seven Republicans, as the Democrats won six of the seven seats they targeted in the Golden State and even swiped some the national party hadn’t targeted.

Among the seats picked off by Democrats were those of San Joaquin Valley Reps. Jeff Denham and David Valadao, both farmers who appeared to have won on election night but fell behind as provisional ballots were counted.

In addition, the seven governorships that Democrats picked up nationwide will impact congressional redistricting in 2022, giving the party hope for better numbers in the House in the next decade, Nuxoll says.

With the shift in House control, President Donald Trump’s administration can expect “considerably more oversight” and find it more difficult to fulfill a campaign promise of rolling back regulations, he says. And budget battles will be more contentious.

There will be opportunities for compromise, too, he says. One area is infrastructure, for which Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., is expected to produce a $500 billion bill that would include money for water projects, Nuxoll says. DeFazio is expected to chair the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

“Congressman DeFazio has said water projects should be part of infrastructure,” Nuxoll says. “Getting a chunk of a half-trillion dollars is a big, big, big deal. That is a concrete objective we’ll be working for.”

Trump has proposed a $1.5 trillion infrastructure package that largely relies on state and private-sector funding, and his plan “did not go anywhere,” Nuxoll notes.

Focused on infrastructure

“But clearly the president is focused on infrastructure,” he adds. “It strikes me that infrastructure is something that the president, House Democrats and the Senate can work together on.”

One thing that farm groups will push for, he says, is policy changes.

“Why does it take decades to get environmental clearance for these projects?” Nuxoll says. “It takes way too long to get shovels in the ground.”

Typically, Democrats are happy to provide money for projects but won’t touch environmental laws, while Republicans want to reform the Endangered Species Act but won’t allocate money, he says.

“This is a bipartisan issue,” he says. “We need to tackle both problems.”

On immigration, a wide chasm between the parties has never been more evident than in the partial government shutdown that began just before Christmas. But “there is an event that will force Congress to take action,” Nuxoll says.

The U.S. Supreme Court will eventually take up cases involving the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, which temporarily protects illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children from deportation. Nuxoll believes the court will likely side with Trump’s ability to rescind DACA, which was enacted through a 2012 executive order by then-President Barack Obama.

“This will force Congress to take action on immigration,” Nuxoll says, adding that a DACA-for-border security tradeoff could be arranged. “There could be a haggle here. There could be negotiations going on.”

State politics

In state politics, the future appears more ominous for the GOP, notes redistricting expert Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc. Republican lawmakers that had survived the Obama-led waves of 2008 and 2012 were swept away in November even with lower overall turnout, he says.

“The fact that we had a Democratic wave in a low-turnout election makes it more dramatic,” Mitchell says, adding that Democrats took seven congressional seats and eight legislative posts from Republicans. “These were not take-backs, these were overthrows,” he says.

Mitchell cites new California voting laws as one reason for the shift, noting that people who put provisional ballots in the mail on election day tend to be younger renters and ethnic minorities, adding strength for Democrats. In 2016, 45 percent of so-called “late” voters were age 18-34, he says.

“In the Legislature, the impact is huge,” he says. “One of the groups that was hurt the most is moderate Democrats. They used to have the keys.”

Before, moderate Dems could team with Republicans to impact the budget and other bills, but no longer, he says.

The Legislature will soon see more change, Mitchell says. In 2022, members will be running against each other because of redistricting, and in 2024 many members will term out because of new term limits set in 2012 that allow officials to serve 12 years in one chamber.

Implications for ag

For agriculture, it will be important to get urban members to understand the needs of farmers, such as the need for water, says state Sen. Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, whose district stretches from Merced and Madera in the San Joaquin Valley to Salinas and King City near the coast.

“Part of the challenge for me is I’ve got to educate my colleagues,” Caballero said during an Almond Conference panel discussion.

Assemblyman Heath Flora, R-Ripon, another conference panelist, agrees.

“Last year we brought a lot of nuts into the members’ lounge,” he says. “Every day they were all gone.”

Republican legislators will need to take time to negotiate on bills, he says. They may still vote no but they can educate other members.

“For me to get anything done, I have to count to 41,” he says, referring to votes.

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