Wyoming legislators gear up for session
Of the seven new members of the Wyoming Senate, Senator Jim Anderson says he’s encouraged and excited.
Representative Mark Semlek, Chairman of the House, says that, when he came to the Wyoming Legislature eight years ago, there were eight members who worked full-time in the ag industry, out of 60 total.
“I haven’t done a head count with the new members, but I think that’s grown,” he says. “It’s interesting, and important, and I think it will serve us better to have ag backgrounds on our committees.”
Anderson says in mid-January the Senate will begin its debates about school recalibration, wind revenue taxation, the state’s position on the federal health care bill and a host of other bills.
Semlek says there were 21 bills for the Joint Ag Committee, of which he’s co-chairman, to review throughout the summer. “That’s a heavy load for us, and we’ll begin on those at the beginning of the session. There’s a lot of work there that we need to do.”
Semlek says those ag bills can be divided into subject areas, and describes one group as a “call to freedom in agriculture.”
“Since the new Congress in Washington, and the new leadership in the White House for the past two years, there’s been a lot of interest throughout the country in pushing back and recapturing state sovereignty, and recapturing the rights we feel are important,” says Semlek.
Semlek describes them as a group of bills that reflect the opportunity for ag people to market their products somewhat free of legislation
Senator Eli Bebout, also a member of the Joint Ag Committee, describes one of the top food safety-related bills that will come before the Senate in a few weeks – the Wyoming Traditional Food Act.
“In Fremont County we regularly host a legislative event in a small room, and a year ago the ladies from Methodist and Catholic churches came, filling the room and telling us of an issue they had with bazaars at the churches,” says Bebout, reviewing the issue. “In one case a person from Wyoming Department of Agriculture had come and shut them down for safety violations, and because of that we had a bill during last session to deal with it, but we ultimately decided not to proceed with the bill.”
“We now have a bill I think will take care of it,” says Bebout of this session. “It applies to those traditional events we have in our community – a branding, a church bazaar or a funeral where everyone brings their dishes to share. The bill says that, for anything that’s a traditional event, we exempt hazardous and non-hazardous foods from inspection by the state. This bill takes care of inconsistencies in our law, and I would hope the legislature looks at it favorably.”
“Some of you have appropriate concerns about moving down that road and opening up non-regulated food products, because it affects all of us,” says Semlek. “We might enjoy the freedom, but along with that comes responsibility, and along with that comes ‘let’s not do anything to jeopardize our industry.’ We want to make sure they have the ability to do the things they want to do, but at arm’s length transactions between willing sellers and willing buyers.”
Semlek describes another group of ag bills as “Wyoming’s changing landscape legislation” – those that have to do with subdivisions and fencing.
“Good fences make good neighbors, and that bill will provide some guidelines to subdividers with respect to perimeter fencing,” he explains, adding that another change in the landscape due to subdivisions is irrigation water. “We’ll take a look at a change in use on the lands under subdivisions, and continue to make sure we can transfer the use of that water to other ag properties.”
“The other group of bills are ‘responsible acts of livestock ownership,’” says Semlek. They deal with quarantine, animals at large, feral livestock and protection of livestock.
Of another piece of legislation coming from the Joint Ag committee, the Economic Analysis bill, Bebout says it’s a bill that took a lot of work last year and has the support of ag unity.
“It deals with an important issue. We used to have a ‘war on the West,’ and now we have a ‘war on Western jobs.’ With all the federal initiatives coming our way, we wanted to put tools in the hands of those who deal with them first hand – the county commissioners.
“Those federal decisions have huge impacts on the use of lands, and county commissioners attend cooperating agency meetings, where it ends up being one or two of them and all the federal bureaucrats. This bill gives them a tool to show the importance and impact of the decisions they make on the RMPs and federal land management plans.”
“They’ll be able to say what will happen if the land is taken away from ag or mineral production,” says Bebout.
The bill did pass the Wyoming Legislature last year, but Governor Freudenthal vetoed it.
Semlek says Wyoming livestock identification and traceability will also be debated.
“The feds fell on their face in national identification program, and we now have an appropriate interest and responsibility to look at a traceability program for our livestock producers,” says Semlek. “A high percentage of all livestock leave the state, and while we might want to feel sovereignty, we’re not an island. We rely on markets beyond our borders, and if we get some restrictions based on the fact we don’t have traceability, we jeopardize our industry in the state.”
Because of the sheer number and the range of legislation dealing with the livestock industry in the 2011 General Session, Semlek urges livestock producers and all others in Wyoming’s ag industry show up and testify before the legislature on the issues that matter to them.