Pennsylvania’s top ag lawmakers like what they’ve seen of Gov. Tom Wolf’s $24 million plan for agriculture, but they’re eager for more specifics — and ideas to pay for the proposal.
“While we acknowledge the need for this critical support, we must also exercise due diligence as we identify potential funding sources,” said Sen. Elder Vogel, the Republican chairman of the Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee.
Democratic Sen. Judith Schwank, the committee’s minority chairwoman, was more effusive, calling the proposal “the leadership we need for the future.”
Still, Schwank said, legislators would use the March budget hearings to “really get these ideas out into the open, get them fully vetted.”
Wolf’s package, dubbed the PA Farm Bill, would create centers for farm business development and animal agriculture, fund conservation work, promote the state’s strength in organic farming, and relax a few regulations.
Wolf unveiled the proposal on Feb. 14 at a Hershey farm, flanked by Schwank and both parties’ leaders from the House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee.
Vogel was unable to attend.
For Senate Republican leaders, the biggest question right now is how to fund the new programs.
“We must maintain our commitment to no broad-based tax increases that hurt business growth, while continuing our efforts to rein in government spending,” Vogel said.
Though the PA Farm Bill would increase ag spending, the governor’s budget would cut $3.8 million from existing programs.
Governors often zero out some of the smaller agricultural line items with the expectation that the Legislature will restore them.
Left out this year were various research and marketing programs, along with the Keystone International Livestock Exposition and All-American Dairy Show.
House Republicans are also wondering how to pay for the nearly $1 billion spending increase Wolf has proposed in his broader $34.1 billion budget.
“We are still looking at the details of his proposal, but the bottom line is bigger government and higher spending are not good for our taxpayers or the economy,” Rep. Martin Causer, chairman of the House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, said in a Feb. 6 statement.
Senate Republican leaders have also pointed out that Wolf’s ag proposal isn’t entirely new.
The largest line item, a $5 million grant program to aid dairy processing and marketing, was created in last year’s budget — and Senate Republicans say they’re the ones who championed it originally.
Ag Secretary Russell Redding, a Wolf appointee, said last week that the entire $24 million proposal counts as new funding because the dairy program, as well as money for spotted lanternfly containment, were only temporary line items last year.
In addition to supporting the dairy grants, Senate Republicans are pushing for the state to hold a dairy summit, bringing together agencies and stakeholders to help the struggling sector.
“A similar approach in New York has yielded positive reviews, and we believe this summit could serve as a valuable outlet for the entire industry at a minimal cost to taxpayers,” President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, Majority Leader Jake Corman and Vogel said in a Feb. 14 statement.
Budget hearings for agriculture begin March 5 in the House.