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Legislative priorities: A look at Farm Bureau’s focus

by Michelle Kitchens

At Arkansas Farm Bureau almost everything relates to food. It’s what many of our members do — grow the food — so a food analogy is appropriate. Legislative sessions are like soup, changing the ingredients a little can really change the taste of the soup. The upcoming 89th General Assembly could be a spicy soup. 

In the November general election, voters added almost equal parts Republican and Democrats, then ratcheted up the heat factor with some hot ingredients like the healthcare insurance exchange, tax reform and the proposed Medicaid expansion and shortfall. Add voter ID, education funding, school choice and ethics reform to bring it to a boil, and then let it all simmer for at least 60 days.

Arkansas Farm Bureau (ARFB) is bringing its own additions to this version of alphabet soup. The following items are the legislative priorities of the ARFB membership.
  

Taxes

Agriculture, like all businesses, is constantly seeking competitive advantages by reducing costs. Creating tax treatments is one way to reduce costs. ARFB has positions on five different tax issues on the priority list this year. The legislature will consider many tax code bills during the session and weigh carefully each change on its merit. Several organizations and legislators will be eyeing tax changes; reductions in grocery tax, income tax, energy for manufacturing, capital gains and replacement parts are all circulating. Achieving a tax cut in this budget environment will be hard work. ARFB’s grassroots network must actively lobby legislators if we hope to accomplish tax reductions in this session. 

Sales tax exemption on energy for poultry and other animal facilities.
ARFB has worked for several sessions to achieve this goal. Energy costs continue to climb and, consequently, so does the farmer’s tax bill. A reduction or complete exemption will provide some relief for farmers whose energy bills are in the tens of thousands. This exemption will have the most impact on poultry growers. According to USDA reports, there are more than 6,000 poultry farms in Arkansas. Every county in the state has a poultry farm. Poultry accounts for 47 percent of total agricultrual receipts in the state, and agriculture is Arkansas’ largest industry. This exemption would put money in the accounts of every poultry farmer and thus their rural communities. The estimate for an exemption on energy would cut taxes by $6-7 million.

That savings, assuming a moderate multiplier, would mean a positive $20 million economic impact. The first benefit of this tax cut will be felt in rural communities. This has the largest price tag of all of ARFB’s requests and will have to have all farmers actively involved to secure this exemption.

Sales tax exemption for expendable materials used with agricultural equipment. 
ARFB will seek a sales tax exemption for “expendable materials.” This includes hay wrap, twine and cotton bale wrap. Present law provides exemptions for tomato twine and certain cotton binding. The proposed legislation will update the tax code to match newer technologies. Several legislators have expressed interest in passing the bill. This request is modest with a $600-800 million annual impact. And for drought-impacted cattle and cotton farmers, every little bit helps. It’s far from a “done deal,” and farmers and ranchers must contact their legislators and request they support this legislation.

This exemption also will help prevent shopping leakage to neighboring states. Many farmers now cross state lines to purchase these items. Let’s keep our purchasing here instead of buying in border states like Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Mississippi. 

Support a coalition effort for a sales tax exemption on parts and repairs if farm equipment is included.
An exemption for manufacturing replacement parts and repairs is being proposed by industry supporters. The present proposal doesn’t include agriculture. However, ARFB has approached supporters about the inclusion of farm parts. If the proposal expands to include agriculture, ARFB will join the effort to pass this legislation. 

Oppose any reduction in agricultural sales tax exemptions.
This is a perennial item on the priority list because of its importance to our membership. ARFB will work to protect the current exemptions used by farmers. 

Support increasing the timber tax by 5 cents per acre and changing the name to “Timber Fire Suppression Fee.”
ARFB’s support of expanding tax exemptions should illustrate better than anything, our position on taxes. However, the organization has a long history of supporting the state’s collection and even increase of necessary revenues. The per-acre timber tax is presently 15 cents and is paid only on timber acreage. This tax supports wildfire protection by the Arkansas Forestry Commission protecting homes and timber investments statewide.

An increase to 20 cents per acre will generate about $1 million but could save Arkansans tens of millions in losses from one dangerous wildfire. One need only think about the drought and fires of last summer to see the value in fire suppression. Our membership has discussed the issue thoroughly and believes the service is valuable and the increase is needed. We will work with the state agency and timber industry. Both support an increase to achieve this goal. 

  
Crime and Enforcement

Support stiffer penalties and expanded enforcement for transporting live feral hogs.
Hogs. Many Arkansans love them on the gridiron but hate them in the pasture and crops. These pests are a scourge to farmers and wildlife. Research shows their spread across the state can be directly attributed to human transportation. It’s presently illegal to transport and release feral hogs in Arkansas. We are seeking the possible increase of penalties for transport and release and the expansion of enforcement authority to stem the growing wild hog population.   

Support additional restrictions on sale of non-ferrous metals.
Despite changes to the law addressing the sale of copper and scrap metals, thieves continue to boldly steal these items. ARFB recently adopted policy supporting a permitting process that would prohibit dealers from purchasing items until sellers submit the proper paperwork. The permits would be issued by the local police. As long as prices for non-ferrous metals remain high, theft will continue. But changes to the law will make it easier for police to catch and prosecute offenders. 

  
Animal Health 

Support amending Arkansas’ brucellosis law to create the “Bovine Animal Health Program” and set a maximum fee of $2 per head.
Arkansas is one of the last states maintaining a brucellosis program. The state has been free of the disease for 15 years, and cattlemen want to adjust and use the per-head fee to address other cattle health issues. The fee, paid at the market by cattle owners, would be converted from brucellosis-only to allow more flexibility to address other health issues, such as trichomoniasis or animal identification. 

Support additional funding for the Arkansas Veterinary Student Tuition Assistance Program.
ARFB helped create this program during the last session to provide additional financial assistance for Arkansas students attending Mississippi State University’s School of Veterinarian Medicine. Students would be required to establish a practice that includes the treatment of large animals in Arkansas. This is a great opportunity to invest in Arkansas youth and agriculture’s future and rural economic development. A relatively small financial investment puts more large-animal vets to work ensuring the health of livestock. It also brings a graduate-level taxpayer back to Arkansas to begin a career in animal medicine. 

  
Water 

Support a statutory priority for agricultural water use, second only to human consumption.
As most active Farm Bureau members know, Arkansas is in the beginning stages of adapting the State Water Plan. The plan is the governing guidance for the state’s water use. ARFB feels strongly that agriculture should have high priority in water usage, second only to human consumption. ARFB would like to see this basic principle confirmed in law. Water is critical to food production and food production to human survival. Arkansas is a water-rich state, and agriculture is ready to do its part to preserve the quality and quantity of it for our citizens.

  
University of Arkansas, Division of Agriculture

Support funding for the University of Arkansas, Division of Agriculture.
Another constant on the ARFB priority list, we are dedicated in our commitment to see the Division of Agriculture adequately funded. Its mission to education and provide services in every Arkansas county is unmatched. 

  
Commodity Promotion and Research Programs 

Support current structure of commodity checkoff programs.
Arkansas has checkoff and promotion programs for six different farm products: catfish, rice, soybeans, beef, wheat and corn & grain sorghum. Structures for these programs are slightly different and established in Arkansas law. Each program was initiated by farmers, is funded at least in part by assessments paid by farmers, is governed by a representative group that includes farmers and is used to promote goods and perform research. ARFB is a long-time supporter of the programs. Our farmer members believe the present structure of each program is working well and shouldn’t be changed.
  

Term Limits

Cooperate with other interested groups to amend the present law to lengthen the terms legislators can serve.
Only two other states have term limits as restrictive as ours, and the Capitol has become a revolving door for legislators. Governing the state is a complicated business, and legislators need time to be effective, to learn the law and, yes, gain power to make good laws. ARFB and our partners aren’t proposing an elimination of term limits but a more reasonable length of service. Extending the length of term limits is what is best for Arkansas. 

. . .

As always ARFB will work on many issues beyond the priority list, working to support legislation that agrees with our policy and opposing legislation that is damaging to agriculture or rural Arkansas. 

Arkansas is entering a new era in political history. Republicans hold the majority in both chambers but Democrats still control several committees and can block the Revenue Stabilization Act. 

After the election, the Senate and House both changed their leaders-elect. No one knows exactly what recipe is brewing at the Capitol. 

It will definitely have some exotic ingredients in addition to the base. Arkansas could be in for a treat with a delicate balance of flavors but whatever the result, expect the preparation and presentation to have a little more spice.