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Water, taxes and regulations dominate state legislatures

In Oregon, a $1.8 billion budget gap will force legislators to look for more revenue — taxes and fees — or cut services. The gap, caused by runaway state employee health care and retirement costs, will force lawmakers to make hard choices as the administration of Gov. Kate Brown settles in for the next two years.

In Idaho and Washington, water issues have floated to the top of the legislative agendas. In Idaho, replenishing the Snake River aquifer that feeds farms and ranches in the eastern part of the state and protecting water rights will take center stage.

In Washington, a different water issue has rural landowners wondering whether they can afford to drill wells as legislators seek a way to accommodate a recent court ruling. The ruling requires landowners to prove new wells won’t hurt water sources needed to maintain fish populations. At the same time, Gov. Jay Inslee will continue to his push for a controversial carbon tax as a way to bolster the state budget.

Though water is always an issue to California, the most productive agricultural state in the nation, regulations on overtime for farmworkers and a spate of other issues that impact farmers will continue to take center stage in the state Capitol.

Here is a state-by-state look at the upcoming legislative sessions:
Oregon: Budget gap will dominate
By Mateusz Perkowski

Capital Press

SALEM — With Oregon legislators facing a major gap between the state government’s expected revenue and expenses, debates over spending reductions and tax increases are expected to dominate this year’s legislative session.

Rising costs for state employee pension and healthcare costs are expected to leave the state with a $1.8 billion deficit during the upcoming fiscal biennium, which spans two years beginning July 1. The current biennium’s budget is $70.9 billion.

For organizations representing Oregon agriculture, that means the legislative session will be spent defending government services that are valuable to farmers, experts say.

“People really feel those impacts on the ground,” said Katie Fast, executive director of Oregonians for Food and Shelter, an agribusiness group.

For example, the governor’s recommended budget would create a “hole” of $9.4 million for Oregon State University’s agricultural research and extension services, likely leading to reduced service levels, she said.

Such a dramatic reduction would undermine long-term studies that boost farmers’ productivity and efficiency, said Fast. “You don’t do research for only two years.”

Similarly, the Oregon Department of Agriculture would terminate its financial contribution to USDA’s predator control program and its biocontrol program for weeds.

The Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program, which is aimed at creating easements to protect working farms and ranches from development while easing tax burdens, isn’t funded under the governor’s budget proposal, said Mary Anne Nash, the Oregon Farm Bureau’s public policy counsel.

It’s going to be tough to win funding for a new program when existing core agricultural programs are in jeopardy, she said.

On the policy front, Oregon farmers are still dealing with the consequences of past labor legislation that requires paid sick leave for workers and increased the minimum wage at varying rates based on region, said Jenny Dresler, state public policy director at the Oregon Farm Bureau.

The Bureau of Labor and Industries has interpreted those bills during the rule-making process in ways that are unclear and burdensome for farmers, so the Farm Bureau will be seeking legislative clarifications and fixes, she said.

“We’re entering this year with a lot of questions,” said Dresler.

Environmental groups are also expected to raise perennial legislative questions about regulating genetically modified crops, pesticide usage, livestock antibiotics as well as air and water quality, experts say. Exactly what bills related to these topics will be put forth remains to be seen.

With the USDA proposing to deregulate genetically engineered creeping bentgrass, which escaped field trials and has spread in Eastern Oregon, it’s possible lawmakers will have a greater appetite to regulate such crops, said Ivan Maluski, policy director for Friends of Family Farmers, a nonprofit critical of biotechnology rules.

“It’s a pretty clear example of failure of federal oversight,” he said.

Friends of Family Farmers plans to advocate a tax credit that would benefit landowners who lease property to beginning growers, Maluski said.

With the tough budget outlook, the group hopes to pay for the tax credit by eliminating a subsidy for anaerobic digesters it believes benefits only large dairies, he said.

“Access to land for beginning farmers has been a huge issue in Oregon for quite some time,” said Maluski.
Idaho: Water issues dominate
By Sean Ellis

Capital Press

BOISE — Ensuring the state continues a major aquifer recharge effort is expected to be one of the main agriculture-related issues during the 2017 Idaho Legislature, which convenes Jan. 9.

In fact, several of the big issues expected to arise during the 2017 legislative session have to do with water.

Sen. Jim Patrick, a Republican farmer from Twin Falls, said ensuring the state continues its efforts to recharge 250,000 acre-feet of water into the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer annually will be a priority in 2017.

That recharge effort, which began in 2016, is a major part of a landmark 2015 settlement agreement between ground water pumpers and surface water users along the ESPA that averted the possible curtailment of water to hundreds of thousands of acres of irrigated farmland.

“That’s the No. 1 issue for agriculture and for the state because if we don’t get our water, we don’t pay taxes,” Patrick said.

“We will have to continue to fund that,” said Sen. Bert Brackett, a Republican rancher from Rogerson. “The state is committed to doing recharge.”

Lawmakers will also keep an eye on the formation of a groundwater management area for the Eastern Snake Plain established in November by Idaho Department of Water Resources Director Gary Spackman.

An advisory committee created by IDWR will draft a plan that governs the management area.

“We’re waiting to see how that shakes out,” said Republican Sen. Steven Bair, a retired farmer from Blackfoot.

Idaho Farm Bureau Federation governmental affairs officials said they will back a bill that requires the legislature to take affirmative action on any minimum stream flows set by the Idaho Water Resource Board.

The water board holds 291 minimum stream flow water rights covering 994 miles of streams, according to its website. If a stream falls below that minimum flow level, other water rights could by curtailed.

Minimum stream flows set by the board go before the Legislature but they go into effect even if the body doesn’t take affirmative action on them.

The Farm Bureau-backed bill would require the legislature to vote “yes or “no” on them.

Discussions about the possibility of the state helping to fund University of Idaho’s proposed $45 million livestock research center will also likely take place during the session, according to several legislators.

Lawmakers are also expected to discuss ways to beef up the state’s efforts to prevent aquatic invasive species from invading the state’s waterways and continue to fund the state’s wolf control efforts.

Idaho’s main farm groups will also seek to help push through a proposed Idaho Department of Environmental Quality rule that would amend the state’s field burning program.

Several of the state’s environmental groups say they will oppose the rule change, which the department says is necessary to avoid a large reduction in the number of allowable burn days for farmers.

A bill that creates a dyed diesel enforcement program in Idaho will be introduced this year, Brackett said.
Washington: Well questions, taxes
By Don Jenkins

Capital Press

OLYMPIA — The big water issue facing the Washington Legislature originated from west of the Cascades for a change.

Whatcom County annually receives more than triple the rainfall of Yakima County. Yet the state Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in October that new domestic wells there could suck away water needed for fish.

The Whatcom County vs. Hirst decision doesn’t affect existing water rights, but it casts doubt on whether new wells for homes can be drilled anywhere in the state.

Agricultural groups, including the Washington Farm Bureau, are alarmed. The decision could stop farm families from building and cripple rural communities.

The state Department of Ecology reports being deluged with phone calls from rural landowners worried about whether they can build. The agency can’t say “yes” or “no.”

At the very least, the decision — if left alone — promises to make wells more expensive. Homebuilders would have to prove a new well won’t draw down rivers and streams. Estimates to do that range from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars.

“Every place we go, somebody asks us how we’re going to fix this,” said Moses Lake Republican Judy Warnick, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture, Water and Economic Development Committee.

Not everyone agrees the Hirst decision needs to be fixed.

The environmental group Futurewise, a plaintiff in the suit, said the decision means counties must balance growth with protecting fish.

House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, said he wants to “roll (the decision) back or make it work.”

“I’m hoping any legislation will clarify that people have access to their property to build a home,” he said.

The 105-day session begins Jan. 9. Republicans retained their slight majority in the Senate, while Democrats did the same in the House. The main job will be to adopt a two-year budget to take effect July 1. Lawmakers are under a court order from the state Supreme Court to increase education spending.

Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, has proposed a $46.8 billion operating budget — 21 percent more than the spending plan lawmakers passed in 2015. Inslee says the state can’t constitutionally or morally meet its obligations without raising taxes. He has proposed $4.39 billion in new revenues. He has reintroduced a tax on carbon emissions, a policy that lawmakers and voters have rejected in the past.

Source: http://www.capitalpress.com/California/20170105/water-taxes-and-regulations-dominate-state-legislatures

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