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Government

Appropriations to hear Dept. of Ag budget request

Written by Jennifer Womack

Conservation district and predator funding to be discussed

By Jennifer Womack, WLR Managing Editor 

Cheyenne – With the 2008 Budget Session of the Wyoming Legislature just a month away, members of the Joint Appropriations Committee (JAC) spent the bulk of December in Cheyenne. They’re back in the Capitol City beginning Monday as they prepare the state’s two-year budget for the session set to begin on Feb. 11.
    John Etchepare, Director of the Wyoming Department of Agriculture (WDA), will present his budget to the JAC first thing Monday morning on the third floor of the Capitol Building. With 96 employees it takes around $34 million to run the agency for two years, according to Etchepare. That includes around a million dollars in federal grants primarily directed at meat inspection and the mediation program. In comparison to other state agencies Etchepare says the Department of Ag is a small agency.
    Despite its size, WDA Deputy Director Jason Fearneyhough says, “The WDA touches every individual in the State of Wyoming through our different divisions. With technical services, consumer health, and analytical services and beyond agriculture, we work for consumers out there as well and make sure they’re getting the healthy product they’re paying for. We have a pretty broad impact for a fairly small agency.”
    Etchepare says Wyoming is one of the few states in the nation where the department of ag continues to be funded with general fund monies. Most, he says, are run on grants, federal dollars and revenue generated by licensing, inspections and regulatory income. He says that’s why so many ag departments around the nation have become involved in helping administer the large-dollar school lunch program.
    Governor Freudenthal approved the agency’s standard budget in its entirety and a great deal of the exception budget. Included in the standard budget are those items the legislature has allowed to be ongoing. Among the items the Governor approved in the exception budget are a new scale truck to replace the current 1970s model that’s outdated, much-needed safety equipment and more.
    Three of the $6 million requested for local predatory animal boards as grants through the Animal Damage Management Board (ADMB) was included in the standard budget. The remaining $3 million was included in the exception budget and did not receive Freudenthal’s approval. Etchepare attributes that to a request from the JAC to revisit the funding. This is the second time the funding request has come before the legislature.
    Also denied by the Governor was increased funding for Wyoming conservation districts. “It’s vital to the water quality efforts in the state,” says Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts Executive Director Bobbie Frank. With two water quality coordinators traveling 40,000 miles a piece in the state, Frank says one of the positions will be lost in the absence of additional state dollars. “The other part of the request is to allow grants for work on impaired and threatened waters,” says Frank. She says the state’s dollars are matched by local and federal dollars and needed to continue the work so important to Wyoming’s water resources.
    Increased operating money for the Wyoming State Fair was approved by the Governor as part of the exception budget. Etchepare says ongoing construction on the grounds is being handled through Capital Construction with an equine stalling facility, show rings and asphalt improvements already planned. Increased construction costs continue to pose challenges.
    Of his nearly 100 employees, Etchepare says the majority are inspectors. He says goals of being able to offer more to the state’s farmers and livestock producers are part of the reasoning behind his recent requests to see the Business Council’s Agribusiness Division returned to his Department. Meeting with Business Council CEO Bob Jensen later this month, Etchepare says they intend to have a proposal compiled by April.
    Employees in WDA’s Natural Resource Division have the closest relationship with Wyoming agriculture. “I have a strong natural resource division,” says Etchepare. “Right now we’re pretty well staffed in natural resources. Their role also changed not too long after I got here because of Joint Agency Status. Years ago it was ranchers negotiating. Now we have to represent the agricultural community. It’s put a lot of pressure on those people, but they’ve done an outstanding job.”
    When Etchepare goes before the JAC on Monday he says the committee receives his entire budget request, including those items denied by the Governor. “We cannot bring up any item that the governor did not approve. In other words, I’m basically an agent of the Governor.” Appropriations can ask about items the Governor didn’t approve at which time Etchepare can answer questions on the topics. Those items may be added throughout the process while others may be omitted.
    “Those people who feel funding for predator boards and conservation districts is important,” says Etchepare, “need to get a hold of their legislators on the Appropriations Committee.” Budget discussions will continue throughout the upcoming session.
    “To me our function is to make as many things available and possible for our people in agriculture to survive, to go on and to grow,” says Etchepare. He says his agency keeps an eye on ensuring their services reach from young and beginning producers to the older generations and from small producers to large producers. “I think we’re doing a good job,” says Etchepare.