3/9/2013 7:00 AM
By Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade Special Sections Editor
HARRISBURG, Pa. — Members of the Pennsylvania Senate Appropriations Committee said Tuesday that it seemed like they were having the same discussion regarding the state agriculture budget as they had last year.
“It seems like déjà vu again, we are talking about the same cuts,” state Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Reading, told state Department of Agriculture staff.
“I have grave concerns we are always taking funds away” from popular programs such as PA Preferred, hardwoods promotion and crop insurance, she said, calling such moves “short sighted.”
Agriculture Secretary George Greig agreed with Schwank and others that many of the programs that were trimmed or eliminated in the budget were great programs.
However, “in tough budgets we have to go back to our core mission” of inspection and safety, Greig said.
Senate Ag Committee Chairman Elder Vogel Jr., R-New Sewickley Township, who is also a member of the Appropriations Committee, asked about funding for the animal health commission, which has been cut in past budgets but was increased this year with the money coming from horse racing development funds.
“You are the first line of defense of our food supply,” Vogel said. “Can the proposed budget protect the food supply?”
Deputy Secretary Matt Meals said the funding proposal would cover the commission’s needs. With the reduced funding in past budgets, he said, the laboratory system has worked to become more efficient and is reviewing its fee structure.
Several committee members criticized the administration’s budget for funding the animal health commission and other agriculture programs such as the Pennsylvania Farm Show and local fairs through the horse racing development fund, which was established to encourage investment by the horse racing and breeding industry.
Racing industry pressure is being felt from Ohio, New Jersey and New York, and Sen. John Rafferty, R-Collegeville, called the diversion of money a raid on the fund.
“This is easy picking out there, and the governor is reaching in there to plug a hole,” he said.
In a related issue, department officials brought up one challenge facing the burgeoning horse racing industry. Funding for inspections by the horse racing and harness racing commissions has not kept pace with the need.
This is a separate fund from the horse racing development fund and is generated from fees on bets placed at the tracks. Although more horses are being raced in the state and more bets being placed, most of those bets are not being placed in person at the track and are not generating revenue for the fund.
Greig also noted that when the horse racing regulations were passed in 1981, the department was responsible for inspecting and testing for two drugs, which has grown to more than 2,000 drugs today. More than $7.5 million goes to testing, he said.
There was also discussion of the funding for conservation districts, which has been moved to the Act 13 program, which distributes impact fees from the Marcellus Shale development.
Funding is set for about $5 million, which is more than last year, but some conservation districts are worried that this will not be enough to cover their missions.
Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Dallas, said she represents a blend of counties with and without shale formations. The shale counties are receiving additional local impact fee funds, she said, and she is concerned about the county conservation districts that do not receive the additional funds.
Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster, asked if the proposed funding will be enough for counties like those in his district, York and Lancaster, which are in the crosshairs of environmental enforcement but are not in the shale region.
Greig acknowledged the work of the conservation districts, recalling his time as a Crawford County Conservation District director and the large variety of programs the staff had to manage on a tight budget.
Sen. Mike Brubaker, R-Lititz, asked how the department will continue the work of the centers of dairy and beef excellence after both programs were zeroed out in Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget proposal.
Greig said the department is looking for other ways to fund these programs, calling them public/private partnerships and pledging to work with each to continue its mission.
He said the Center of Dairy Excellence is a resource that helps the state sustain its top five dairy state status.
Although budgets are tightening, Greig said, the department has been working with Penn State Extension to develop centers to pool resources.
The three centers will be food safety, animal care and plant health, he said, and the idea is to “combine and leverage resources.”
Brubaker also spoke about the importance of sustained agricultural research funding, which the proposed budget keeps at the same level as the previous budget.
“Ag research is a long-range strategy,” Brubaker said, and consistent funding is needed for long-term research projects.