By Ashley Jost
House Bill 667 and House Joint Resolution 29, both sponsored by Houghton, would not limit or even alter the powers that Missouri’s Department of Agriculture currently has.
The proposed constitutional amendment, HJR29, seeks to establish the elected office of the Secretary of Agriculture — a position which would have all of the same powers, duties and functions the current Director of the Department of Agriculture has, but would also eliminate the department as an executive department.
Currently, there are 12 states — including some of Missouri’s neighbors: Kentucky and Iowa — that have an elected Secretary or Commissioner of Agriculture.
HB667, which hinges upon the passage of HJR29, instead seeks to change the Department of Agriculture to the Office of Agriculture, which would be run by the newly created position sought by the constitutional amendment.
“Agriculture is the number one industry in the state,” Houghton said matter-of-factly. “I don’t think it’s currently in the forefront, but hopefully this would bring it even more [relevant] in the state.”
The bill and joint resolution were both heard last Tuesday during public hearings, but neither bill is scheduled for additional hearings as of Monday morning.
The difference between the Secretary of Agriculture position in comparison to the current Director of the Department of Agriculture wouldn’t be all that different, Houghton said.
“They would promote [Missouri] agriculture throughout the state, country and worldwide, when possible,” he said. “Missouri farmers care about their products and I don’t think we do a very good job of promoting that ourselves.”
Houghton said the secretary would ultimately be a liaison between state government and the people.
During the hearing last week, Houghton said the Soybean Association testified in support of the bill and the Missouri Farm Bureau testified against it.
Leslie Holloway, Missouri Farm Bureau Director of State and Local Government Affairs, said while the Bureau sees the benefits involved in the new legislation, they also believe there’s a risk in what could happen when the constitutional amendment is put on a state ballot, and such a large number of voters are from areas of the state that are more urban or suburban than rural.
“We’re concerned what could happen if you have a Secretary of Agriculture and have a group that comes in and affects the campaign for that office that isn’t involved with Missouri farmers and ranchers,” she added.
Holloway said an example of that happening during the past would be the quarter of a million dollars put into affecting the campaign for Proposition B during 2010.
“We’re not completely against [the legislation],” Halloway added. “We just want more analysis before we support it.”
Another key farming group in the State, Missouri Corn Growers Association, has yet to take a stance on the issue.
Hilary Holeman, a MCGA representative, said the decision to support or oppose the legislation wouldn’t come until the next board meeting at the earlier.
Houghton said he doesn’t know what the future of the bill might be, but that there’s a chance it could be voted out of committee as early as this week.
“I’ll keep pursuing it if it doesn’t happen this year,” Houghton added. “This just gets the conversation going. It’s more important to get it right and not rush through things.”
Ashley Jost is no longer with The Missouri Times. She worked as the executive editor for several months, and a reporter before that.