The ongoing push-and-shove match over state agricultural funding unfolded Tuesday at the state capitol.
A joint public meeting held by the House and Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs committees in Harrisburg on Tuesday morning reviewed the impact of agriculture funding cuts on Pennsylvania farmers and programs that support them.
And as the days continue to roll by without a compromise, massive ramifications are closer to being felt in across the local four-county region.
“While there is certainly disagreement on some individual lines (line items) and actions, there is no disagreement in the support for agriculture,” state Department of Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding said at the joint public hearing.
In December, Gov. Tom Wolf line-item vetoed tens of millions of dollars in the 2015-16 state budget earmarked for the state’s agriculture industry. If state funding isn’t restored before May 1, Penn State officials have said programs would be shut down, resulting in an estimated 1,100 jobs being cut and a state economic loss of more than $260 million.
In his testimony, Redding said not funding Penn State and the Land Scrip Fund is an issue of the process, not the value. The Land Scrip Fund is how Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences agricultural research and Extension programs are funded.
As a matter of fact, the state Department of Agriculture’s mission is difficult to accomplish without the existence of Penn State and Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences, he said.
“There is probably not a program or a bureau in the department that doesn’t have an intersection with Penn State and the Cooperative Extension (SIC) from high-path avian influenza to the Chesapeake Bay. Pick an issue and Penn State shows up as our partner in that process,” Redding said.
Therefore, support funding is critical, he said.
To that end, state Rep. Martin Causer, R-Turtlepoint, said at the hearing the Land Scrip Fund line item did not have to be axed in the 2015-16 budget.
“That’s step one in the process. We have the appropriation in the general fund to the Land Scrip Fund. And the second part in the process is the non-preferred appropriation that actually gets the funding out to Penn State,” he said.
Causer said he is baffled with Wolf vetoing the Land Scrip Fund, something he says had been unnecessary.
“And then to sort of blame the Legislature for not passing the non-preferred (appropriation) when we know full well that that takes a two-thirds vote of both Houses of the Legislature, and at the same time, the governor was asking the House Democrats not to support passing the non-preferreds, which we’ve brought up twice,” Causer said.
In a prepared statement, he called the agriculture crisis as being manufactured, saying Wolf wanted to veto funding to force support for higher taxes and increase spending.
However, “the last thing we want to see is Cooperative Extension and what we have built over 152 years, fall apart because of this appropriation or lack thereof,” Redding said at the hearing.
But soon, farms and agriculture research, safety and outreach programs, and schools, universities and hospitals are close to facing major harm, Causer said.
“There is no question about the importance of animal health and safety in securing a successful future for our agriculture industry,” Causer said. “Continuing funding for our animal diagnostic laboratories at Penn State and Penn’s New Bolton Center, along with the PA Veterinary Lab, is a necessity, not only for the people working in the agriculture industry, but also for all of us who rely on it for food and other products.”
Also at the hearing, Vincent Price, provost of the University of Pennsylvania, and Dean Joan Hendricks of Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine, outlined the university’s work with Pennsylvania farmers, including monitoring of various types of livestock and working to help boost milk production on dairy farms.
Officials also highlighted how the instability of state funding impacts its ability to recruit new veterinary medicine students and recruit and retain quality faculty.
For his part, Wolf’s Press Secretary Jeffrey Sheridan said the reasoning behind the line-item veto, like the others, comes down to “simple reality and math.”
“We do not have the money to support these programs and the Republican-controlled Legislature has shirked its responsibility to pass the revenue necessary to support myriad of programs including agriculture,” he said.
But, Sheridan said, Wolf is supportive of funding of these vital programs and is set to ink a budget that is balanced, repairs the deficit and makes historic investments in education and agriculture programs.
As the crisis looms, Causer said he has sponsored three supplemental appropriations bills that would reinstate agriculture programs.
Under House Bill 1831, $50 million in funding would be restored to Penn State, including its research, Extension and 4-H programs.
Meanwhile, House Bill 1832 would provide $350,000 in funding for the Hardwoods Development Council, which supports ongoing development and expansion of the forest products industry; and House Bill 1589 would amend the state’s Fiscal Code to transfer approximately $25 million from the Race Horse Development Fund to support the Veterinary Laboratory System, Animal Health Commission, agricultural fairs, Farm Show and State Racing Fund.
House bills 1831 and 1832 are pending consideration by the House Appropriations Committee, and the House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee approved House Bill 1589 and is awaiting a vote by the full House.
“The governor is hopeful Republican leaders will end their partisanship and work with him to pass a real, bipartisan budget that includes the revenue necessary to fix the deficit, invest in education and fund important areas like agriculture programs,” Sheridan said.