Source: Oregon Department of Agriculture news release
January 13, 2011-- A new governor but an old hand at leading the state has been sworn in. The 2011 Oregon Legislature has convened. Many of the issues facing both appear daunting. For Oregon agriculture, as usual, what happens in Salem doesn’t stay in Salem. There will certainly be legislative proposals that have a significant impact on farmers, ranchers and others associated with one of the state’s leading industries.
“Just like last session, the number one focus at the capitol this time around is the state budget,” says Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) Director Katy Coba. “Natural resource agencies are not a huge part of the General Fund budget. But all state government will face dramatic challenges that impact the delivery of services. I know our budget doesn’t always resonate with the agriculture industry, but it needs to. Our customers need to pay attention to how ODA is funded. That will be a key issue for us in the current legislative session.”
Coba has just been reappointed by Governor Kitzhaber to head the agency. She is starting her ninth year as ODA director. Coba says this will be the most challenging legislative session from a budget standpoint that she’s seen in her 25 years of state government service and believes it is important for the agriculture industry to be involved in budget discussions.
With education, public safety, and human services responsible for a vast majority of the state’s General Fund expenditures, the remaining agencies will be challenged to find ways of paying for the services they provide.
“What we see is a continual shift to other funds,” says Coba. “We realize that farmers and ranchers in Oregon, and the many other customers we serve, are really at the maximum in terms of what they can pay through fees. But I believe the trend will continue. Do I like it? No, not at all. But I do not see a future where the ODA and other natural resource agencies can compete for the limited dollars available in the General Fund. This trend has been playing out for the past 10 years.
“We need to find a wider base of fee payers to support the natural resource agencies of this state,” Coba says. “That burden can’t just be put on the backs of farmers, ranchers, fishermen, and foresters. It’s a big challenge that we are sorting through right now. We need agriculture’s support in that effort. We need the industry to send a message to legislators about the importance of our agency’s budget.”
Coba says the industry needs to tell legislators what state agency programs are critical and what is the best way to fund those programs. Once again, tough choices are expected to be made when it comes to creating a budget for the 2011-13 biennium.
“We have a number of advisory groups that work with us on budget issues,” says Coba. “Once again, we are proposing fee increases in at least a couple of areas this session. In the meantime, we will continue to work on being more efficient, innovative, and creative at finding ways to save money, time, and effort.”
Coba and other state natural resource agency directors have provided information for the governor and the legislature on the importance of natural resource industries to the Oregon economy. The message is hopefully resonating with leaders in Salem.
“Even in gloomy budget times, there is a positive for our agencies,” says Coba. “Governor Kitzhaber is very supportive of natural resource agencies. He recognizes the importance of natural resource industries to our state’s economy, and there is a strong interest in protecting those sectors. Translating that to the state budget picture, it doesn’t mean we are immune from cuts. But I believe this administration will do the best it can to support ODA given the overall difficult budget situation.”
The agriculture industry has a history of working with Governor Kitzhaber, in his earlier two terms, on several issues that have had positive results. Coba points to his support of agricultural water quality management plans– established under Senate Bill 1010 years ago– as an effective industry response to threatened fish populations. ODA’s director says the industry can rely on Kitzhaber’s support in the future as the program, which allows farmers and ranchers to develop their own solutions to identified problems, evolves and improves.
Coba appreciates the governor’s support for an integrated water resources strategy and the importance of addressing water quantity issues so critical for Oregon agriculture. The governor also has a track record of supporting the marketing and promotion of Oregon agricultural products locally, regionally, and internationally.
The changing makeup of the Oregon Legislature will also have an impact on agriculture.
“At the end of the last session, there was a super majority for the Democrats in both the House and Senate,” says Coba. “That no longer exists. There is still Democratic control in the senate, but the ratio between democrats and republicans is closer. The house is evenly split. What that means, I expect, is moderation in political views and finding middle ground in the incredible challenges we face. Everyone wants to move the economy forward and find new ways of doing state business. It will all require bipartisanship. From my standpoint, that’s a good thing. Going forward, I believe there will be a good balance in how we approach issues in a thoughtful way.”
In addition to state agency budgets, Coba says there will be legislation introduced on the usual key industry issues of land use, pesticides, and food safety. Again, the need for bipartisan support on any bill should moderate the legislation. But she strongly urges Oregon agriculture to be active in the capitol, aware of what is being introduced, and involved as much as possible in crafting bills the industry can support.
“From that standpoint, this session represents a very good opportunity for the industry,” says Coba.