House plan OKs measure to merge State Plant board, six other agencies into Agriculture Department

by Wesley Brown (wesbrocomm@gmail.com) 456 views 

Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s push to downsize state government continued Wednesday (March 15) when a House committee approved a measure to consolidate seven smaller farming-related boards and commissions into the State Department of Agriculture.

In a long meeting before the House State Agencies & Government Affairs, House Bill 1725 sponsored by Rep. Dan Douglas, R-Bentonville, was easily approved following testimony from Agriculture Secretary Wes Ward and a long list of supporters and opponents.

Under HB1725, the State Plant Board, Arkansas Forestry Commission, and the state Livestock and Poultry Commission and four other lesser agencies would become part of Agriculture Department through what is known as a “Type 4” transfer, where records, personnel, property, unspent appropriations, allocations and other funds, including the functions of budgeting and purchasing, will be transferred to the principal department.

Those agencies, however, would retain and exercise their statutory authority, powers, duties and functions, while the directors will continue to be appointed and serve at the pleasure of the governor. The other agencies include the Abandoned Pesticide Advisory Board, the Arkansas Farm Mediation Office, the Veterinary Medical Examining Board, and the Arkansas State Board of Registration for Foresters.

In introducing HB1725, the colorful Douglas downplayed “conspiracy theories” that he said were circulating at the Capitol concerning the eighth state agency consolidation that has taken place since Hutchinson became governor in January 2015.

“Although I have heard people say this is a power grab, and that we are trying to steal money – it is nothing near that – the propaganda is rampant,” Douglas testified. “This is an efficiency bill. This is just to save the state money to make government more efficient. This is a reorganization of the state Department of Agriculture.”

Douglas testified that when the Department of Agriculture was created in 2005, the intent of enabling legislation was to bring the State Plant Board, Forestry Commission, and the state Livestock and Poultry Commission under the umbrella the larger department.

“The legislative intent at the time was as personnel retired and left the service of (those agencies), there would be some combining of jobs,” Douglas said. “Well, as it all works out in government so many times, the intent is not what happened. So we ended up with three agencies now that each have their own HR and procurement departments … and their own CFOs. It is a duplication of services that is not needed.”

Douglas said Gov. Hutchinson’s staff has studied the combining of the state agencies into the Agriculture Department for six months, meeting with multiple stakeholder groups across the state. Agriculture Secretary Ward also testified in support of HB1725, saying he is continuing efforts began more than a decade ago to consolidate certain functions of the varied state agencies and boards.

“My predecessors took the actions they could and moved forward, and when I started in March of 2015, we continued that trend and one of the first things we started was the consolidation of the fiscal HR staffs, which we were required to do by the (2005 law) … but had not been done,” Ward said.

Ward said when the governor first directed state agencies to look for ways to improve government efficiencies at the end of 2015, the Department of Agriculture began working with the Arkansas Policy Foundation to implement a strategic plan to downsize state government.

“Through that process, we’ve already identified over $600,000 in savings per year, and those are what I would call ‘low hanging’ areas that really just make the Ag Department work better,” said Ward, whose department has a projected annual budget of $46 million for fiscal 2017.

Still, Douglas’ bill ran into opposition, particularly from supporters of the State Plant Board. Ray Vester of Stuttgart, a member of state Plant Board appointed by Gov. Hutchinson, said he was opposed to the Type 4 transfer because it takes the board’s $10 million budget and puts it into the hands of the Agriculture Secretary. The Stuttgart rice farmer said if the Plant Board is merged into the Agriculture Department, he fears regulation of pesticides, fertilizers and seeds for soybean, rice and other crops that come into Arkansas would suffer.

“We don’t run free and wild. We take care of things as they should be taken care of,” Vester said.

Wendell Stratton, CEO of Stratton Seed Co. in Stuttgart, also spoke in opposition of HB1725 because of the decision to transfer the Plant Board into the Agriculture Department. The Stuttgart farmer and businessman also told the House committee that industry officials were not consulted by the state agri officials or the governor’s staff in drafting the legislation to bring the seven state agencies under one standalone department.

“I can assure you that in this process, none of industries were included,” Stratton said. “They mentioned the Farm Bureau and a couple of other organizations, but they did not include industry. (We) are the ones that fund this entire organization. We are totally in support of the Plant Board as it stands.”

After more than an hour of testimony, the House committee approved HB1275 in a voice vote. It now goes to the full House. After the committee hearing, Ward told Talk Business & Politics that no state employees will lose their jobs as a result of the governor’s consolidation plan and all of the state boards and affected by the consolidation are supporting the merger of the seven agencies.

“We are not firing anybody and there’s plenty of work to be done.”

If HB1725 is approved by the Legislature, the Agriculture Department would be one of eight state agencies streamlined under Gov. Hutchinson’s efficiency project, first announced in December 2015. Before the 2017 session started in January, Hutchinson said he would begin implementing some of the strategies recommended by an Arkansas Policy Foundation report that found at least $50 million in potential efficiencies.

In early December, Hutchinson announced the establishment of the Office of Transformation to drive the implementation of state efficiencies and streamline state operations. That office is run by Amy Fecher, executive vice president of operations for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. Fecher testified at today’s committee hearing.

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