There are 62 Legislators in the DE General Assembly. Many are former teachers. Some run small businesses. A few have backgrounds in healthcare. Five are former police officers (according to a recent DE State News article). But NONE are full-time FARMERS. As a matter of fact, out of 62, only a handful have any experience in agriculture at all.
On the House side, the closest we get is Representative’s Dave Wilson (a part-time farmer and horse breeder), Harvey Kenton (retired from Milford Fertilizer-now Growmark FS, LLC), and Jack Peterman (retired farmer). All are Republicans and in the minority caucus, which doesn’t hold much weight when it comes to committee chairmanship. Chairs of each committee come from the majority caucus, which is currently the Democrat party for both chambers in Delaware. The former chair of the Ag Committee, John Atkins-D, lost in the last election. The Vice-chair was Quinn Johnson-D, who actually grew up on a truck crop farm in Maryland but is more involved in his family daycare business in Middletown. All of the above served on last year’s Ag committee.
On the Senate side, there’s even less ag experience and its all in the minority caucus. The best I can find is Senator Brian Pettyjohn (grew up on a farm and worked for Mountaire Farms). These are a stretch but somewhat related to ag: Senator’s Ernie Lopez (works for UD Cooperative Extension/4-H) and Gerald Hocker (owns his own family grocery store). Again, all are Republicans. The former Chair was Bruce Ennis-D, who’s a former state policeman.
So why care who chairs our Ag committee? A committee chair can have significant power by setting the committee’s agenda and determining when and whether bills will be considered. Other responsibilities of a committee chair typically include calling the committee together to perform its duties. In the past, the Delaware House and Senate Ag Committees often join together to meet. Last year, both Ag committee’s in either chamber met only a handful of times. It often seems to be at the request of our Secretary of Ag, who seems to drive the agenda in Delaware. Last session’s proposed legislation focused on the declining horse industry in Delaware (another recent article for the DE State News). The committee not meeting often means there isn’t much policy being formulated, which to many farmers is a good sign because it means less regulation and government interference. But I don’t think this will be the case in future years. Just watching Maryland grapple with the proposed “Phosphorus Management Tool (PMT)” is painful. Many other state legislatures’ are considering other bills harmful to the ag industry, such as ag-gag laws and GMO labeling campaigns. This is why I was disappointed that a proposed right-to-farm bill (HB 63) went nowhere last session. We need legislators with ag experience to serve and chair this committee to protect our #1 industry by convening this group regularly, setting an agenda to protect their farming constituents, and working with the only pro-farm lobbying group-the Delaware Farm Bureau. Given the lack of experience, especially on the Democratic side, I’m guessing the new chairs will have little experience in agriculture, which is not good when it comes to protecting our #1 industry. Wouldn’t it help to have a pro-active Ag committee stacked with ag-educated legislators on our side? It’s often too late to educate policy-makers when a bill is already on the table. Especially when our best advocates sit in the minority caucus.
All committee assignments and chairs, appointed by the House Speaker and President Pro Temp, should be announced soon as the 148th DE General Assembly reconvenes on Jan. 13, 2015. New Ag committee chairs will be named. Stay tuned.