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Legislature helps farmers, forestry; Ag chief touts legislative accomplishments

June 24, 2008

Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain, D.V.M. said his first regular session with the Louisiana Legislature was an overwhelming success for farm and forestry interests.
“It’s been a great session,” Strain said. “We had an aggressive package of 24 bills which will change the way a lot of our boards and commissions do the public’s business.”
Twenty-three bills championed by the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry (LDAF) were approved by the legislature, Strain said.
"I’m extremely happy with the backing agriculture and forestry received from the legislature,” Strain said. “A number of pressing issues confronting Louisiana farmers and foresters were resolved in this session.”
Particular among Strain’s concerns was passage of HB 633, sponsored by Representative John F. “Andy” Anders, which limits liability for farmers and other rural-life tourism professionals engaged in agritourism.
"It’s an important issue," Strain said. "To make ends meet, more and more farmers are opening their land to the general public for corn maze, pumpkin patch, field tours and other guided activities. High liability insurance costs were reducing opportunities for farmers to turn a profit and stay in business.”
A key measure in Strain’s overall package was the reform of public bidding procedures (SB 133) for the Louisiana Agriculture Finance Authority (LAFA).
“The public told us they wanted LAFA business to be transparent,” Strain said. “Senator Jack Donahue led the fight for the measure which now requires construction projects undertaken by LAFA to be in full compliance with state public bid laws.”
Another issue on Strain’s agenda was the creation of a grain elevator and cotton warehouse indemnification fund (HB 1253).
“In the last 11 years there have been seven grain elevator insolvencies,” Strain said. “The money owed to famers averaged $482,000. In the last insolvency, farmers were owed just about a million dollars and not paid.
“Not being paid for their grain crops can bankrupt a farmer.”
Strain said an assessment of 1/25 of one percent of all grain and cotton sold in the state will be collected until the indemnification fund reaches $6 million.
“It was extremely important to the grain and cotton farmers to get this kind of protection,” Strain said. “Representative Scott Simon and Senator Joe McPherson were instrumental in helping us with this issue.”
HB 1253 also corrected outdated terminology and functions pertaining to the LDAF.
“We looked at every aspect of what every board, every commission and every office of the LDAF does and studied the law governing our department,” Strain said. “We wanted to update the law to reflect our mission, its scope and what’s going on in today’s agri-business environment. HB 1253 does that.”
Other major legislative accomplishments for Strain and the LDAF were the procurement of boll weevil eradication commission funding (HB 1287, by Representative Jim Fannin) and the assigned responsibility of collecting timber severance taxes for the state.
“The boll weevil bill gives us the funding to finish this year,” Strain said. “Our mission is to radically decrease the presence of the boll weevil in Louisiana in the next three years. We have a quarter billion dollars of cotton planted in the state and needed the funding to complete our course.”
Strain said the LDAF collection of state timber severance taxes will be more efficient as a result of Representative Harold Ritchie’s HB 1381.
“The Louisiana Forestry Commission asked the LDAF to begin collecting state forestry severance taxes and remit them to state and local government,” Strain said. “Since we have personnel in the field who monitor the timber all the way from the point of harvest to delivery, we can better ensure that those taxes are properly remitted.”
Strain said 75 percent of state timber taxes are remitted locally. The majority of the remaining 25 percent goes back into the state forestry productivity fund which manages a cost share program for replanting timberland and other ecologically friendly programs.
With regard to its budget, the LDAF was not completely successful in getting the full complement of funding for its mission, Strain said.
“Louisiana has a $20 billion agriculture and forestry industry,” Strain said. “One in six residents work in agriculture, but despite the critical needs of our industry, some of our funding requests came up short. We must now resolve to do more with less.”
Other legislative highlights benefitting Louisiana agricultural and forestry interests are:
·        SB 627 by Senator Francis Thompson requires the Horticulture Commission to adopt rules and regulations regarding the demonstration portion of the retail florist examination.
·        SB 497 by Senator A. G. Crowe allows a licensed retail florist who owns his/her own business to operate up to five floral design climate-controlled vending machines at remote locations.
·        SB 635 by Thompson combines the horticulture service license and landscape contracting license into one landscape horticulturist license.
·        SB 623 by Thompson clarifies enforcement procedure and the levying of fines, including increased maximums, against those who advertise, solicit or engage in a regulated horticulture profession without proper licensing or violate horticulture law.
·        SB 550 by Thompson made a number of technical changes referring to enforcement of fertilizer law, revises the list of fertilizer law violations and provides that local regulation of fertilizer is preempted by the fertilizer law.
·        SB 198 by Thompson allows Louisiana to participate in the Interstate Pest Control Compact and creates a pest control insurance fund to help deal with destructive plant pest outbreaks.
·        SB 641 by Thompson outlines the powers and duties of the LDAF commissioner and Boll Weevil Eradication Commission and provides for travel expenses for commission members to attend meetings.
·        HB 1355 by Representative Noble Ellington funds the Aquatic Chelonian Research and Promotion Board’s efforts to promote and expand Louisiana turtle markets.
·        SB 592 by Senator Neil Riser requires all private rural residential railroad crossings to remain open when ordered by the LDAF. 
The bills become law when signed by Governor Bobby Jindal. In the event the governor does not sign one or several of the bills, the measures will become effective on August 15.