By Jackie McClaskey, Secretary of Agriculture
January 12, 2015. It’s a day that I’m willing to bet was just “another Monday” for most Kansans. For our state’s elected legislators, it was the first day of the state’s longest legislative session, and likely one of the most controversial. While issues like tax reform, budget and education funding received a great deal of attention, there were other issues, issues of great importance to Kansas farmers and ranchers, to be debated and addressed.
As the dust settles from the 2015 legislative session, it’s time to recognize the efforts of our state’s lawmakers to pass legislation benefiting the agricultural sector and block efforts that would have resulted in significant financial hardship for our state’s farmers and ranchers.
Before going any further, we must recognize lawmakers in the Kansas legislature who are champions for agriculture. Running for office and then serving a diverse constituent base is a hard job – one most of us aren’t willing to take on. State senators and representatives take time away from their home and families in order to represent, stand up for and be the voice for their constituents in Topeka. To Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Garrett Love, House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Sharon Schwartz, Senate Natural Resources Committee Chairman Larry Powell, House Budget Committee Chairman Kyle Hoffman, and their committee members, I offer a sincere thank you. I thank you for your service to agriculture – our state’s largest industry, employer and economic driver.
In agriculture, whether you’re a corn farmer from Brown County, a feedlot manager from Finney County, a wheat farmer from Stafford County, an equipment manufacturer from Saline County, or somewhere between, your business relies on access to water. And thankfully for our state’s agricultural industry, leaders in Kansas, including Governor Brownback, state agencies and the state legislature, have demonstrated a commitment to water conservation by advancing flexible, locally-driven water resource conservation efforts.
For example, in 2012, the Local Enhanced Management Area law was passed allowing locally-driven water conservation plans within the boundaries of established Groundwater Management Districts. The “Sheridan 6” LEMA, initiated by farmers and ranchers in Sheridan and Thomas counties, will result in a 20 percent reduction in water use over five years. This year, the legislature applied the same locally-driven water conservation model and applied increased flexibility with regard to size and geographic boundaries. The new Water Conservation Areas will allow groups of water right holders, with 100 percent consensus, to form a WCA to enter into voluntary water use reductions.
That was not the only water-related success story in the 2015 legislative session. The popular multi-year flex account (MYFA) program, first enacted in 2012, was updated to provide additional flexibility to water users. MYFAs give farmers and ranchers the ability to manage their groundwater resources over a five-year period, ending the old “use it or lose it” mindset. The law was updated this year to allow water users to rollover into a new five-year MYFA up to one year’s base average water use. In addition, changes made this year allow water right holders to make small adjustments in the place of use while enrolled in a MYFA. These common sense changes to the MYFA program will further encourage water users to responsibly manage water resources – using water when Mother Nature does not provide us with the necessary moisture but also saving water during wet times.
With regard to the livestock sector, state lawmakers also took strides to ensure our state’s farmers and ranchers have access to veterinarians to help them raise healthy animals. Creating an institutional license category for veterinarians employed at K-State’s College of Veterinary Medicine and removing previous sunset language from the Rural Veterinary Training Program that assists with student loan repayments for veterinarians practicing in qualified rural areas will help ensure all Kansas farmers and ranchers are able to access veterinary care for their animals.
The success of this session is not just what the lawmakers were able to do, but it’s also about what agricultural leaders in the statehouse were able to prevent from happening. Ideas were floated earlier this spring that would have changed the way agricultural land is taxed. The bottom line is this – we have a system in Kansas that works – it’s a system that has been used as a model in 42 other states. Toying with land valuation methods and increasing property tax burdens on farmers and ranchers would be devastating to thousands of farm and ranch families. Those lawmakers who stood up and ensured such misguided ideas did not make it into any final bill should be commended.
The 2015 legislative session was many things. It was challenging. It was controversial. It was downright frustrating at times. But it would be shortsighted to ignore the positive actions taken to advance agriculture in Kansas. While the session may have officially concluded on June 26, the work is now beginning at the Kansas Department of Agriculture to implement the new programs, while continuing to focus on providing high quality service to Kansas farmers, ranchers and agribusinesses. We look forward to continue to work hard on behalf of farm families across our great state.