LF2019029-Budget-66.jpg

Pennsylvania lawmakers came together this week to support a budget that includes a $19 million increase in ag spending.

Legislators also passed 10 other pieces of legislation to aid farmers.

The bipartisan enthusiasm for agriculture comes as the state is in its best financial position since the Great Recession — and as farmers endure a prolonged slump in commodity prices.

“We believe the heavy focus on agriculture this year is a recognition by the General Assembly and the governor that a prosperous farming community is essential to the economic health of rural communities and the state’s economy,” said Rick Ebert, president of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.

The House of Representatives approved $159 million for agriculture programs on a 140-62 vote Tuesday as part of the state’s general budget.

The Senate passed the budget on a 42-8 vote Thursday.

The House version includes new money to implement parts of Gov. Tom Wolf’s PA Farm Bill proposal, including centers of agricultural excellence, disaster preparedness and response, and enhancement of the PA Preferred branding program.

Some Republican initiatives, including a tax credit to aid beginning farmers and a commission on the future of the dairy industry, have also passed both houses.

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Bellefonte, said the darkest days of the dairy crisis last year showed him that the state wasn’t doing enough for farmers.

“We had to step up and do more,” he said.

Ag lawmakers are used to fighting to get their line items restored during the budget negotiations, but “this year we didn’t have to do that,” said Sen. Elder Vogel, chairman of the Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee.

In a video posted on Twitter, Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Wilkes-Barre, said he was pleased with the success of measures to aid veteran farmers, promote Pennsylvania-grown food, and fight invasive species.

The House restored funding for programs that Wolf customarily cuts as a negotiating tactic, including livestock shows, ag research and export promotion.

And Penn State’s ag research and Extension programs was slated for $55 million, a 2% increase over last year.

In a separate bill, lawmakers voted to give the University of Pennsylvania’s veterinary school $31.6 million, a 2% increase.

The House budget would also increase education funding and steer the General Fund’s end-of-fiscal-year surplus — between $250 million and $300 million — into the state’s Rainy Day Fund.

The tax code bill accompanying the budget contains a sales tax exemption for materials and supplies bought for the construction or repair of an animal housing facility.

The bill also clarifies that costs for completing conservation and manure management plans are eligible for Resource Enhancement and Protection tax credits, according to Farm Bureau.

Vince Phillips, legislative director for the Pennsylvania State Grange, said he was generally upbeat about the budget passed by the House, but he still saw room for improvement.

For example, lawmakers allocated $4 million for disaster readiness, less than the governor’s proposed $5 million.

And several dedicated funds were raided to pay for normal budget operations.

“Such short-term budget actions make me think that there will one day be a reckoning and the funds will be depleted when they are really needed,” Phillips said.

While most of this year’s farmer-aid bills have enjoyed solid bipartisan support, floor debate over the broader $34 billion budget became rancorous this week.

In the lead-up to Tuesday’s budget vote, House Democrats frequently sought to discuss an increase in the minimum wage.

House Speaker Mike Turzai, a Republican, blocked that topic as not germane to the budget bill, but had difficulty stopping Democrats from mentioning it anyway.

In the Senate on Wednesday, shouting matches erupted as Republicans blocked Democratic amendments to a bill that would eliminate the General Assistance cash benefit program for needy people.

A 2012 law had killed the program but was overturned in court last year, allowing Wolf to reinstate the program.

President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Brockway, said Democrats’ continuation of Wednesday’s tactics could put the entire budget process at risk.

But on Thursday, speeches leading up to the budget vote were more decorous, with senators from both parties highlighting human services that did or didn’t make the budget.

Phil Gruber is the news editor at Lancaster Farming. He can be reached at (717) 721-4427 or pgruber.eph@lnpnews.com. Follow him @PhilLancFarming on Twitter.