Major farm issues face governor,California legislature this year

Health insurance, reapportionment, food safety, and biotech will be large blips on the political radar screen of California lawmakers and Gov. Arnold Swartzenegger in 2007, according to agricultural lobbyist Richard Matteis who has represented California agriculture for 22 years. He said agriculture must utilize existing tools to achieve a positive political impact.

Matteis spoke to about 100 growers during the annual meeting of the California Alfalfa & Forage Association in mid-December, which was held in conjunction with the Western Alfalfa & Forage Conference in Reno, Nev.

According to Matteis, No. 1 on the governor’s list is health insurance for California’s uninsured. By mid-December, 16 health insurance bills had been introduced in the legislature. A handful of agricultural leaders have been involved in the issue.

“Agriculture’s concern is the insurance plan which would increase agriculture’s costs significantly and further reduce the industry’s competitiveness,” Matteis noted. “That is the message we’re trying to send to the (Swartzenegger) administration. I don’t know if there is a win-win and a way to do both.”

If mandatory health insurance is approved, Matteis supported a plan where a stay at the hospital would not include ridiculous hospital charges like $8 for a single band-aid or $24 for a box of tissue.

Changes in reapportionment to include redistricting are also on the governor’s radar screen, Matteis noted. The ’06 election left party lines intact with 48 Democrats and 32 Republicans in the Assembly and 25 Democrats and 15 Republicans in the Senate.

“The last election was an indicator that incumbents are entrenched and it’s almost impossible to unseat an incumbent under current district lines. You also tend to get folks who are toward the extremes on the left and right.”

Matteis said Gov. Swartzenegger supports a plan to engage real competition in elections. The governor might extend term limits to bring the change. Current limits are six years in the Assembly and eight years in the Senate.”

Mendocino County is where Matteis grew up on a cattle and swine operation. Today he serves as the chief executive officer of the California Grain and Feed Association, the Pacific Egg and Poultry Association, and the California Seed Association. He is also manager of the California Grape Rootstock Improvement Association.

Biotech crops

He noted efforts by the seed association to establish a pre-emption of county-by-county regulations for crops produced with biotech. Certain to make the ’07 political agenda, some counties and cities across the state have restricted or banned the use of biotech crops. A statewide-related bill failed in the ’06 legislature but Matteis has hopes for ‘07.

“Our belief is this area of regulation should be the sole authority of the state of California and specifically the (state) Secretary of Agriculture,” Matteis said. “Already on the books is a seed law provision which grants the secretary the authority to determine what can be planted in the state. We argue that we’re just taking that a step further and making that mandatory.”

Matteis says the administration supports biotech as part of the bio fuels solution of reducing fossil fuel burning and any global warming effects.

While E-coli found in bagged spinach last year damaged California’s fresh vegetable industry, Matteis predicted with no surprise that food safety would also show brightly on the radar screen. There could be legislation to create buffer zones where vegetable fields are close to current or previous livestock operations. A regulatory program will be created, he said, and noted efforts by the Western Growers organization to create mandatory best agricultural practices.

For agriculture to make sure its voice is heard, Matteis said involvement is the cornerstone for agriculture to make a difference on the issues.

“We need solidarity in our ranks. That’s what the labor unions do,” he said. “We need greater solidarity absolutely as an industry. Even if there are problems on a bill, we need to move it forward and work out the problems later.”

Need more dollars

In addition, farmers must become more politically active and that means dollars. Several years ago Matteis visited with the leaders of a large California agricultural group whose political contributions were $12,000.

“That is not going to do it. That is not what the teachers do or what Indian gaming does. If we’re going to compete, we’re going to have to pay more,” he said.

Another key to political inroads is increased outreach with urban legislators. Some new legislators in the Los Angeles area are receiving visits from farmers. “Our egg industry has provided thousands of eggs toward Easter egg hunts for children. More of these things need to be done to establish relationships with urban lawmakers.”

The fourth necessary step is to stand firm in agriculture gaining a seat at the table of every decision-making opportunity. While some agricultural organizations have pursued this for three years, he said agriculture needs representation on as many boards as possible.

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