GOP lawmakers push for separate legislative panel on agriculture [Journal Inquirer]

February 2, 2012

Article as it appeared in the Journal Inquirer

By Ed Jacovino
Journal Inquirer

Published: Thursday, February 2, 2012
HARTFORD — Two north-central Connecticut lawmakers want to revive a legislative committee on agriculture, saying farming and its economic benefits need a higher profile at the state Capitol.

“Farming is not a hobby. It shouldn’t be perceived as a hobby for people. It’s a business,” Sen. John A. Kissel, R-Enfield, said Wednesday.

Kissel and Rep. Penny Bacchiochi, R-Somers, want the legislature to create a Select Committee on Agriculture when it convenes on Wednesday. As a “select committee” it would have to report to a larger “standing committee.” But such a move, they say, would raise the profile of farming and show that it doesn’t necessarily belong in the legislature’s Environment Committee, which oversees agricultural issues now.

Their idea has some historical precedent. An Agriculture Committee existed in the legislature until 1964.
Lawmakers have used select committees to raise the profile of other issues at the Capitol. Last year, the Committee on Aging was promoted from a select committee to a standing committee.

Majority Democrats already have dismissed the proposal from Kissel and Bacchiochi, saying it would be a waste of time and money. And the major farming lobby was lukewarm to the idea, saying it supports the concept but questions how it would work.

Kissel and Bacchiochi portray their proposal as a way to increase awareness of the needs of farmers and the role farming can play in the state’s economy. There’s also talk of an agriculture caucus, giving a voice to lawmakers with farms in their districts.

Kissel points to the rising role of agriculture in the state economy, and a recent focus on the issue by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. The governor, a Democrat, included $5 million for farmland preservation in the economic development legislation that lawmakers passed in October. And he revived an agriculture council, with a goal of increasing the state’s food production in the next 15 years.

“The time is now to have that discussion and push these issues,” Kissel said.

Bacchiochi said that while there’s nothing wrong with the Environment Committee overseeing agriculture, farmers would benefit from lawmakers dedicated to their issues.

“Environmental issues are the top priority for the Environment Committee, as it should be. Agribusiness isn’t,” she said.

Bacchiochi added agriculture could be seen as a job creation industry and not merely an environmental concern.

“We need to focus on the economy and jobs. There’s a huge opportunity with the agriculture field to grow the economy and to provide jobs,” she said.

Henry Talmage, executive director of the Connecticut Farm Bureau Association, had a mixed opinion on the idea.

While saying the bureau “is generally in support of any kind of action that would elevate and support agriculture in general,” Talmage questioned whether a select committee is the right way to go. Bills from select committees still need standing committees’ approval before they can go to the full House or Senate.

“For the most part, the Environment Committee has been very supportive of agriculture,” Talmage said. “We don’t want to create a situation where it becomes a burden in order to get agricultural priorities in legislation.”

Majority Democrats already have written off the Kissel-Bacchiochi proosal.

“While I appreciate their interest in promoting agriculture, we do not intend to revise the rules to add a new subcommittee,” House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan said in a statement. “The Environment Committee has jurisdiction over agriculture, which provides the attention this very important issue deserves.

“Creating a new subcommittee would cost over $50,000. This year we are cutting the legislative budget by $800,000. It does not make sense to us to spend funds to duplicate what the Environment capably does now.”

Rep. Bryan Hurlburt, D-Tolland, who has been a vocal supporter of agriculture issues and told one reporter two weeks ago that he supports an Agriculture Committee, now says it’s not worthwhile.

“Agriculture already has a great home in the Environment Committee, and there is no need to duplicate the process,” Hurlburt said. “In fact a new committee would slow things down by adding another layer.”

“The Environment Committee does a great job with agriculture issues and has a great record of getting legislation passed, so I don’t see a need to create a new committee,” he said.

Bacchiochi dismissed Donovan’s claims of cost, saying staff for the new committee could be shared with other select committees. And she questioned the logic that the current committee system is the best way for the legislature to go about its business.

“The legislature makes priorities based on committees that are in place,” she said. “I disagree with the notion that the committees that we have now are the best choices for legislative committees.”

And Kissel said he’s not discouraged by the lack of Democratic support. Many ideas take two or three years to catch on, he said. Even by having the conversation, he and Bacchiochi have made progress, he said.

“We’re in the minority,” Kissel said. “The fact that Chris Donovan even mentioned something about that I take as a positive sign.”