Harrisburg, PA – Appearing before the state House Agriculture and Rural Affairs committee, Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding today outlined challenges and opportunities facing Pennsylvania’s food and fiber industries, but cautioned making progress on those issues could be jeopardized if the House-passed budget bill becomes law.
“In many ways, agriculture is in a state of transition amidst a changing landscape socially, culturally, technologically and economically,” said Redding. “As I have often said, these are extraordinary times, full of opportunities and challenges. We have made tremendous progress on a number of fronts over the past two and a half years, but we, as a commonwealth, will be ill-equipped to meet the expectations of our industry and of the public if we don’t have the resources to serve them.”
Redding’s testimony follows a letter he sent last week to the chairs of House and Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs committees outlining the consequences of House Bill 218, a budget bill passed by the House of Representatives in early April.
Redding warned the more-than-two-million-dollar cut from Governor Wolf’s proposal in operating funds for the Department of Agriculture could threaten the agency’s ability to safeguard public health, inspect the safety of the state’s food supply, improve water quality, and provide services to farmers.
“Since the Governor unveiled his budget proposal in February, we have appreciated the questions, engagement and support of you, your colleagues, and your respective staff members,” wrote Redding in the letter. “I hope we have conveyed through that engagement our efforts to control costs, eliminate redundancies, and modernize our operations in order to improve efficiencies. The Governor’s budget proposal will allow us to continue this work, but do so in a fiscally responsible fashion, while continuing to support Pennsylvania agriculture and our core mission of protecting consumers, their safety, as well as public and animal health.”
H.B. 218 would cut the department’s General Government Operations appropriation by $2.055 million as compared to the Governor’s proposal, which increased that line item by $2.233 million.
“H.B. 218 equates to the loss of 21 positions,” Redding explained, adding, “If enacted, a loss of this magnitude will require us to make very difficult decisions about how to manage in fiscal year 2017-18.”
The loss of 21 positions would be the equivalent of eliminating the bureaus of Market Development and Farmland Preservation, the Hardwoods Development Council, and about half of the positions in the Bureau of Food Distribution, he said. These cuts would effectively render the department incapable of administering programs that help create new markets for producers, such as PA Preferred, international trade, and the Specialty Crop Block Grant program; that safeguard land from development through Pennsylvania’s nation-leading Farmland Preservation Program; that ensure the industry’s long-term viability; and that provide basic nutrition to the state’s most vulnerable citizens via the State Food Purchase Program, the Farmers Market Nutrition Program, the Emergency Food Assistance Program, and other child nutrition programs
The department would also have to consider eliminating food inspectors who ensure restaurants and food and milk processing and manufacturing facilities. Twenty-one positions are equal to roughly one-third of the department’s inspectors, and a loss of that manpower could mean 8,000 fewer restaurant inspections per year at a time when the department is already struggling to keep pace with municipalities turning over inspection responsibilities to the state.
H.B. 218 also proposes cuts to important programs that support conservation districts, which are critical partners in Pennsylvania’s commitment to improving local water quality.
The bill proposes $407,000 less for the Nutrient Management Fund, a cut that will lead that fund to end FY 2018-19 in a deficit. To manage, the State Conservation Commission would have to curtail programs that benefit farmers; cut back on education and training programs that teach producers, certified plan writers and reviewers, and field staff about their nutrient management obligations; and possibly eliminate funding to at least 12 of 21 conservation districts that use those dollars to support staff positions.
The $130,000 cut in transfers to the Conservation District Fund under Agriculture’s budget—coupled with the $376,000 cut for the same line item under the Department of Environmental Protection’s budget—could force conservation districts cut positions, technical assistance positions, or support for special projects. These cuts could be offset with Unconventional Gas Well Funds from the conservation district allocation, but doing so ultimately would mean less funding for districts in counties where unconventional gas drilling is occurring.
“We recognize the challenge of closing an enormous structural deficit like the commonwealth faces, but these types of arbitrary, across-the-board cuts are penny-wise, but pound foolish,” said Redding to the committee. “We hope that by working together, we can find a better way to manage our scarce resources in a way that does not jeopardize our long-term prosperity or the services we provide to Pennsylvanians.”
The full text of Secretary Redding’s letter can be found here.