‘It’s an ‘and’ discussion’: Agriculture boss Redding seeks compromise at budget hearing
During an appearance before a Senate panel, Redding stressed the interconnectedness of the agency’s challenges
Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding at the Senate Appropriations Hearing on Thursday, March 3, 2022.
In a day full of questions about the issues facing Pennsylvania’s $132.5 billion agricultural industry and how to fund them, state Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding said the most important part of the budget hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday was the word “And.”
“It’s an ‘and’ discussion,” Redding said several times throughout the two-hour-long hearing, referring to the interconnectedness of the state’s agriculture industry to other issues facing the commonwealth.
Reflecting on the Department of Agriculture’s appearance before the committee with the Capital-Star, Redding said he was trying to move people away from a “one-dimensional” concept of agriculture.
“I think that is incredibly short-sighted,” Redding told the Capital-Star, “because everything is related to everything else.”
In fact, when it came to questions from the committee about addressing climate change or supporting agriculture, farm preservation or renewable energy, horse racing or the Nellie Bly scholarship, Redding repeated again “It’s an ‘and’ discussion.”
“Today I was sort of trying to paint this picture that while we can have policy differences on things – whether it’s [the] Nellie Bly [college scholarship program] or pick one – there shouldn’t be any disagreement that you need to invest in workforce,” Redding said. “We can do that – we can support the industry [the horse racing industry] but we also have to make a commensurate commitment to workforce.”
Citing the committee’s bipartisan interest in key issues facing the agriculture industry, Redding said that he thinks his message of ‘and,’ not ‘or,’ was received.
“Yeah, I think they got it,” Redding said.
Under Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed budget for the 2022-23 fiscal year, the state Department of Agriculture is slated to receive more than $188 million from the state’s general fund and nearly $99 million from federal funding sources, according to state budget documents.
Part of that budget is a proposed $3 million transfer to the state’s Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement, which continues to face a funding shortfall due to state dog licensing fees, which pay for the Bureau’s operations, remaining at the same fee rate for the last 25 years.
“This has been a challenge,” Redding said, adding that the $3 million will allow them to hire wardens and resume outreach, but adding that “it does not get us the full complement.”
In front of the committee, Redding doubled down on his calls for legislation to increase state dog license fees. “We need the legislation, we need the fee increase,” Redding told the committee.
Addressing the committee’s questions about what would happen if the bureau did not receive enough funding to continue its operations, Redding painted a dark picture, saying that Pennsylvania “would continue to see a decline in services,” including kennel and breeder inspections.
Many on the committee expressed concern over the lack of self sufficiency of the Bureau.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairperson Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, said he was concerned about the bureau’s long-term viability, calling for a longer discussion about the funding deficit at a later date.
Sen. Elder Vogel, R-Beaver, expressed an interest in increasing kennel fees to off-set the stagnating number of dog licenses among the public.
Switching gears, Redding discussed the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Pennsylvania’s agriculture industry.
“This is no joke, this is real in terms of its impact on agriculture and markets,” Redding said, noting that combined the two countries make up about 30 percent of global wheat and corn exports.
“It starts to build and build and build,” Redding said, noting that the price of corn, which has increased by more than $2 in the last two days in commodity markets, is used to feed livestock in Pennsylvania.
Likewise, Russia and Ukraine are large exporters of fertilizer, which is used by Pennsylvania-based farmers on their fields.
“It’s a very nervous time,” Redding told the committee, again noting the “interconnectedness” of agriculture to other industries and facets of life.
Overall, Redding told the Capital-Star that he believed Thursday’s budget talks with the Senate to be “really constructive,” even when the discussion turned from the department’s diversity efforts to the future of the Race Horse Development Fund and Wolf’s proposed Nellie Bly Scholarship Program.
“I think they were pleased to see there were other sources of funds to support the tuition initiative,” Redding said, noting that just $88 million of the proposed scholarship funding would come from the $200 million Race Horse Development fund, according to the proposed budget.
Whether lawmakers are ready to fully support the scholarship, remains to be seen, according to Redding, but he said was pleased that they “aren’t dismissive” of the Race Horse Development Fund being at least a partial funding source for the scholarship fund.
When it comes to continued funding of the Race Horse Development fund, Redding said, discussions about why the public is funding the racing industry is an important part of the dialogue.
“That’s the benefit of having this debate occur,” Redding said, noting the “$3-plus million investment” the public has made in the industry. “We should all ask: “Well, what did we get for that?”
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