Pennsylvania Ag Secretary Russell Redding appeared before the Senate Appropriations Committee on April 8 to discuss the state budget and farm policy. Here are five things that came out of that meeting.
1. Gov. Tom Wolf’s plan to transfer race horse money to college scholarships looks dead in the water.
Redding’s roughest point in the hearing came when he admitted, under questioning from Sen. Joe Pittman, that the Ag Department had not discussed the effect the $200 million transfer would have on the racing industry.
“We did not talk about it in terms of business model,” Redding said.
Redding said the administration had considered how the change would address student debt and state workforce needs, which could theoretically include training new people who would work in the horse industry.
But without assessing the effect on the racing industry, the agency’s due diligence was incomplete, said Sen. Pat Browne, the Appropriations Committee chairman.
“Until that’s done — I will speak on behalf of at least my side of this committee — this proposal will not be taken seriously,” said Browne, R-Allentown.
The Race Horse Development Trust Fund, which routes slot machine revenue to race horse drug testing, purses and other industry benefits, was created as part of a 2004 deal with the racing industry to expand gambling.
The fund was strengthened just a few years ago to confirm its availability to the racing industry, but for the second year in a row, Wolf is proposing to take most of the money from the fund to help students afford attending the state universities.
Republicans also opposed the proposal last year.
2. The state is pleading dairy farmers’ case at the federal level.
Though dairy is the state’s largest ag industry, it does not often figure prominently into budget hearings.
Republican Sen. David Argall asked about the industry, in part because his district in Berks and Schuylkill counties is a hotbed of agitation to get whole milk back into schools.
Redding said the state has not pressed for that change, which would take federal legislation, but continues to encourage dairy-friendly policies in Washington.
For one thing, Pennsylvania has pushed for dairy to have a strong role in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The 2020 edition reaffirmed dairy as a key to a healthy diet, but kept its focus on low-fat products rather than whole milk.
Pennsylvania has also asked the feds to champion dairy in trade issues and to sort out milk pricing problems. An unusual situation called negative producer price differentials hurt the state’s dairy farmers last year, Redding said.
3. Lawmakers are interested in fixing the shortfall in Dog Law funding.
Pennsylvania’s dog license fee is set by statute and hasn’t increased in 25 years — not an easy situation for the Ag Department’s Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement, which has been funded mainly by fees since 1893.
This is the first year that the department has used money from its general operations budget to cover a Dog Law shortfall.
Based on the Ag Department’s requests, Sen. Judith Schwank has introduced a bill to bump annual licenses from $6.50 up to $10, and lifetime licenses from $31.50 to $49.
“It is a function of the department that must happen,” said Schwank, the top Democrat on the Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee. “We can’t operate without this.”
Redding expects that change would increase revenue by $2.5 million, which would allow the state to fill dog warden positions it has left vacant and to restore some of its grant funding for dog shelters.
“We run the risk of going back where we were in 2008, 2009, with the reputation as the puppy mill capital of the East,” Redding said. “And we don’t want to do that.”
Sen. Elder Vogel, chairman of the ag committee, said he thinks some fees, including those on kennels, could be raised.
“What do we need to look at further to try and cut the gap to get where we need to be without taking a lot of taxpayer dollars?” said Vogel, who is also vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
He expects to meet with Redding in the coming weeks to discuss possible solutions.
4. Redding is open to sending state money to land trusts.
The Senate in February passed a bill that would send a portion of state farmland preservation dollars to private land trusts. These entities have augmented government-led preservation efforts, especially by working with Plain Sect farmers.
While Redding said he appreciates the work that land trusts are doing, he’s not sold on the Senate proposal.
Sen. Scott Martin’s bill would just take money off the top of the preservation fund, reducing the amount available to local governments.
With 58 counties in the state preservation system, some already have to wait a year or two before they are able to preserve one farm, Redding said.
One idea he offered is giving land trusts money that is left over after a cycle of funding to the counties. That’s typically about $800,000 a year.
5. The Ag Department is developing a response to solar energy development.
Redding said that solar and farming can coexist, but his top priority is keeping solar projects off the most productive farmland.
In response to requests from local governments, the Ag Department is working on guidance for solar siting. The land assessment rubric that the state uses in farmland preservation could help with their decisions, Redding said.
Preserved farms cannot have solar panels unless they are for farm use, he said.
The state appears to be entering a period of rapid solar energy expansion. The situation reminds Vogel of the natural gas industry’s arrival a decade ago, which led to the state playing regulatory catchup.
“I don’t want us to be in the same situation here a year or two from now where solar’s going everywhere and we’re losing good land and everything like that because we haven’t thought smart about how we want to proceed with this,” Vogel said.
Pittman was concerned not just about the quality of land that could be used for solar, but also about the quantity.
The Wolf administration’s recent agreement to get half of the state government’s energy needs through solar, Pittman said, will produce one-tenth of the energy but use 40 times more land than the Homer City coal-fired power plant in his district.