2/9/2013 7:00 AM
By Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade Special Sections Editor
On Tuesday, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett addressed a joint session of the General Assembly to present his annual budget, a plan that was greeted with a mixed set of reviews, reflecting the increases and cuts proposed.
“We must not forget our obligations to another one of Pennsylvania’s precious resources — our agricultural community,” Corbett said as he introduced his proposals for ag spending.
“Farming in Pennsylvania is a business, but it remains, inherently, a family business,” he said. “Every time a plow cuts into the soil of Pennsylvania, it deepens the roots of our heritage. We must keep it that way.”
Corbett is proposing the state spend $98.5 million on agriculture. The plan increases state fair funding to $2.5 million and the state farmland preservation program to $35 million.
He also wants to maintain funding for the state’s agricultural institutions. The Veterinary School at the University of Pennsylvania would receive $27.8 million for veterinary activities and $248,000 for its Center for Infectious Diseases. And $44.7 million would be set aside for agricultural research and Extension at Penn State.
The research and Extension funding would come from the General Fund this year. The Animal Health Commission, as well as the state’s fairs, would be funded from the Race Horse Development Fund.
“Agriculture is a leader in the state and nation,” Agriculture Secretary George Greig said in a prepared statement. “Gov. Corbett’s budget proposal keeps our farmers farming, with funding for our top veterinary school, agriculture research, protection of our farmland, funding for food insecure Pennsylvanians and our county fairs.”
Although Corbett would increase funding for some areas of the state ag budget, other areas, such as the Centers for Dairy Excellence, Beef Excellence and Farm Transition, as well as the PA Preferred trademark program, were zeroed.
Other areas that would be eliminated include agricultural promotion and education, and hardwoods research and promotion.
Samantha Krepps, spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department, said the PA Preferred funding from last year has laid a “solid foundation for the program, (and) we will continue our work as planned.”
As for the centers, Krepps said the department will work with them to find funding sources “for the important work they have done and continue to do,” and that “some of these plans may include public/private partnerships.”
The budget proposal is the starting point as the General Assembly now takes up the measure.
Mike Rader, executive director for the Senate Agricultural and Rural Affairs Committee, said the proposal is “the first inning” of the process.
“We are still looking at the budget,” he said Tuesday afternoon.
“There are more zeroes than we like,” he said while also quickly pointing out that it was good to see some increases in the agriculture budget.
Rader said the committee’s chairman, Sen. Elder Vogel, R-New Sewickley Township, will begin discussions on the budget within his caucus, then work with the rest of the committee and hold hearings to gather additional information.
“Agriculture is our No. 1 industry,” Rader said, and as such it needs an independent conversation rather than getting tied up in the debates of the more controversial parts of the overall proposal.
Corbett wants to privatize the state lottery and liquor sales as well as overhaul the state’s public pension program, proposals that have drawn sharp criticism from some members of the General Assembly. Reactions to his ag proposals appear to be more muted.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman John Maher, R-Upper St. Clair, called Corbett’s budget a “good first draft,” especially when looking at past budget proposals during his time as chairman.
The general fund, “there’re items yet to do,” he said. “The tradition has been to start with zeros and the Legislature is left to fill in the blanks.”
House Ag Committee Republicans have already met and started discussing action on the unfunded programs.
If there is one area Maher is critical of, it’s the funding for conservation districts.
Because of issues like the Chesapeake Bay and Marcellus Shale, county conservations districts are facing increased workloads.
The governor’s current proposal would reduce the state’s share of their funding by 40 percent, Maher said.
“Ag supporters need to ensure that conservation districts have the resources to complete that important work,” he said.
Barbara Christ, Penn State’s interm agriculture dean, responded to Corbett’s spending plan by saying, “We realize that this is just the start of the budget process, but we’re gratified that state funding for our agricultural research and Extension programs would not be reduced under the governor’s proposal. We believe that this is an indication that the governor recognizes the value of ag research and Extension.”
The Pennsylvania Farm Bureau had a mixed reaction to Corbett’s proposals.
“We are pleased that the governor has earmarked an additional $1 million to the Animal Health and Diagnostic Commission to $5.35 million, although we would like to see that figure increased further to $6 million,” said Carl Shaffer, its president.
“The Animal Health and Diagnostic Laboratories have been underfunded over the past five years and we believe extra funding is needed to ensure that animal agriculture is not placed in jeopardy or that Pennsylvania is not placed at risk for foodborne illnesses or reduced food security,” he said.
Although funding for ag research and Extension was maintained, Shaffer said, Farm Bureau members had been seeking an increase of about 5 percent.
“Without additional funding, the programs, which incurred a 19 percent drop two years ago, could face difficult decisions such as cutting services, employees or both,” he said.
Chris Herr, executive vice president of PennAg Industries, said his priority also lies in adequate funding for animal testing services.
“One of the most important budget items for agriculture from the perspective of the 600 agribusiness members of PennAg ... continues to be the Animal Health Commission line,” he said. “It is critical that Pennsylvania’s animal diagnostic and testing capabilities are utilizing the best and most developed equipment and technology, and highly trained personnel.”
Pennsylvania State Grange Master Carl Meiss said his first reaction to the proposed ag budget was one of “pleasant surprise.” Overall, he found the governor’s ag budget proposal to be encouraging.
Areas the Grange will be working on include funding for PA Preferred, for the centers of excellence, and the All-American Dairy Show and Keystone International Livestock Exposition.
Farm Bureau, Grange and PennAg will hold legislative days in March and April to promote their goals.