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Legislature Looks at State Ag Policy

By John Johnson

The current U.S. farm crisis may have captured more attention and generated more news reports than any previous downturn, and for good reason.

In Texas alone, farm and ranch production values in 1998 declined $2.4 billion from the previous year due to drought and poor exports which led to low prices, according to an economist with the Texas Agricultural Extension Service. The loss in agricultural income resulted in an $8 billion impact on the overall Texas economy.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman in late February predicted a “social catastrophe” for rural America this year as thousands of farmers are forced out of business. Glickman referred to the need to strengthen federal crop insurance and other farm safety nets as projected U.S. farm exports in 1999 will drop to the lowest level in four years.

Congressman Larry Combest, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, is leading the charge in Washington, D.C. Already there is talk and plans are being drawn to bolster federal crop and revenue insurance and to revive slumping exports for commodities such as cotton.

This farm crisis has not been overlooked or ignored in Austin. On a recent visit there, I found no shortage of legislators or other officials willing to discuss the issues and potential solutions, both short- and long-term, as the 76th Legislature convened in January. More importantly, if Speaker Pete Laney of Hale Center and other leaders have their way, any state legislative action will be a bipartisan effort.

“I hope it (partisanship) won’t happen,” Laney said. “There’s always a group that wants the Legislature to be partisan, and I hope we don’t succumb to that,” he continued. “We must do what is good for Texas rather than what a few special interest groups want.” That sentiment seems to be shared by many of Laney’s colleagues in Austin.

“Some form of agriculture relief will be viewed favorably by this Legislature within the bounds of what we have to spend,” said state Sen. Robert Duncan of Lubbock, a key proponent of state funding to assist boll weevil eradication efforts. “Anytime no political party is dominant you can see more partisanship, but Lt. Gov. Rick Perry has indicated he won’t tolerate partisanship. He expects everyone in the Senate to work together,” Duncan continued. State Rep. Robby Cook, a farmer from Eagle Lake, was anxious to start work when the Legislature convened in January.

“Agriculture is the most important segment of this state’s economy,” Cook noted. “Even my colleagues from urban districts are sympathetic to agriculture’s plight, and they are looking to rural representatives to take the lead.” Much of the talk around the capitol in late January centered around a state agriculture policy.

“I’m anxious to start debate on a statewide ag policy,” Cook explained, “to fill in the gaps of federal farm programs.” Texas Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs agrees with that concept.

“We must move now to develop a state ag policy before re-districting in the year 2000,” Combs stated. “We have very knowledgeable people with agricultural backgrounds in the Legislature, and we must work together for our farmers, ranchers and agribusiness interests.” Concerns about re- districting and the potential impact on agriculture also were shared by state Rep. David Swinford of Dumas, new chairman of the House Agriculture and Livestock Committee.

“From now until re-districting, we have a window of opportunity to develop long-term solutions for agriculture’s current problems,” said Swinford. “We must act now because we could lose 20 percent of our rural representation,” he added. Swinford also promised “this will be the most aggressive agriculture committee in my lifetime.” Another new wrinkle in this legislative session is the creation of a rural caucus in the House of Representatives where approximately 80 members have rural interests.

“We’re gathering up and circling the wagons,” Swinford stated. Commissioner Combs applauded the move. “I’m delighted they’re doing this,” she said.

The rural caucus, chaired by state Rep. Judy Hawley of Portland, will address many issues that have affected or could affect agriculture. Other than drought and low farm prices, there are issues such as electric deregulation on the agenda.

“Farmers and ranchers need dependable and affordable electric power,” Laney said. “Anything regarding complete deregulation must keep this in mind.” Cook added, “We will have time during this legislative session to protect agriculture’s interests as they relate to electric deregulation.”

The amount of progress by the Legislature toward resolving the many problems and issues currently facing Texas agriculture remains to be seen. But, one thing is certain. There appears to be a bi-partisan consensus among many legislators and agency officials that much progress needs to be made. They all seem to realize agriculture has an enormous economic impact on Texas.