Williamson Act bill passes at end of legislative year


Issue Date: September 8, 2010
Kate Campbell

The state Legislature wrapped up its two-year session last week with a flurry of action on bills important to farmers and ranchers. At the same time, the session ended without approval of a state budget, which should have been in place by July 1.

Although economic pressures created a particularly fractious atmosphere in the statehouse, lawmakers did find unanimity on a piece of Farm Bureau-sponsored legislation that keeps the Williamson Act farmland-conservation program alive and permits counties to recoup a portion of their foregone property tax revenue.

Farm Bureau staff and leaders, including California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger, spent many hours developing an alternative to the existing Williamson Act program in an effort to continue its benefits to California agriculture and local counties.

Assembly Bill 2530, sponsored by Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, allows for shortening the terms of Williamson Act contracts. Participating landowners would see a 10 percent reduction in the length of their contracts in return for a 10 percent reduction in their property tax benefits.

"Since the bill calls for increased property tax revenue from the program to be allocated exclusively to the counties, they would recoup at least 50 percent of their foregone property tax revenue," explained John Gamper, CFBF land use and taxation director. "Almost from its inception, the Williamson Act has been a three-way partnership among landowners, counties and the state. This new legislation continues that partnership to ensure operation of this vital environmental program."

The state's subventions back to counties have always been crucial to the success of the Williamson Act because they encourage local government participation, Gamper said. The $37 million program, however, had its budget slashed to a mere $1,000 the past two years and some cash-strapped counties have considered ending Williamson Act participation.

To prevent the program from disappearing, Gamper said amendments in AB 2530 maintain incentives for counties and allow for continued protection of the food supply source, as well as protecting watersheds and wildlife habitat.

Farm Bureau experts said the 2010 legislative session also saw a slew of water bills introduced, in many cases legislation they said was not in the best interest of farmers and ranchers.

"We faced bills on a variety of issues—from fees and fines on water users to surface water rights to groundwater, and more—but we were most successful in defeating attempts to change the much-negotiated 2009 comprehensive water package," said Danny Merkley, CFBF water resources director. "Many of the provisions in this year's bills were floor sweepings, cut out of last year's package."

The most damaging to the state's water right holders was Senate Bill 565 (Fran Pavley, D-Santa Monica), Merkley said.

"If passed, that bill would have undone 150 years of legal, solidly established water rights. The language in the bill had been stripped from last year's water package after it failed three attempts to get the necessary votes in the Senate, yet was introduced again," he said.

In addition, Merkley said Farm Bureau was able to defeat AB 2092 (Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael) that would have expanded the Delta Stewardship Council's authority outside the delta, undoing the compromise made last year in the water package. And AB 2483 (Joe Coto, D-San Jose), which was defeated, would have added regulatory burdens and fees on farmers pumping their own groundwater.

Merkley said Farm Bureau worked to defeat a bill that would have required county agricultural commissioners to withhold renewal of a farmer's grower I.D. for pesticide applications on the call of the regional water board's determination of participation in the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program.

"In all, we were pretty successful at fighting off water legislation detrimental to our members and our ability to grow food and produce farm products," Merkley said.

On the labor front, Bryan Little, CFBF director of labor relations, said, "We're very pleased that Gov. Schwarzenegger recognized the agricultural worker overtime bill would've actually hurt our workers by cutting their work hours. We hope he will also recognize that the card-check bill (SB 1474) will hurt workers by denying them the right to decide whether they will have union representation by voting on it. The only fair way to learn if workers want a union is to have an election. The Agricultural Labor Relations Board was created to ensure elections are fair."

Farm Bureau also successfully opposed unworkable regulations that would have required spaying and neutering dogs, including those that work in agriculture.

"We were pleased to see the legislature agreed with our concern about SB 250 (Dean Florez, D-Shafter), because it didn't fully protect dogs used on farms and ranches from spay/neuter requirements," said Noelle Cremers, CFBF natural resources and commodities director.

As an example, Cremers said, "Our members who use dogs to guard their sheep or goats could have had a guard dog picked up by animal control for roaming at large while chasing a predator off the property. We asked Sen. Florez to exempt working dogs from the requirements at both the state and local levels and when we didn't get that full exemption included in the bill, we opposed it."

On the other hand, she said Farm Bureau was pleased with passage of SB 1303 (Lois Wolk, D-Vacaville), which Farm Bureau co-sponsored with the California Cattlemen's Association. This bill, which is awaiting action by the governor, continues the provision through Jan. 1, 2014, that protects farmers and ranchers from prosecution if they accidentally take a species listed under the California Endangered Species Act.

The bill also allows agricultural organizations and other non-profits to work with the state Department of Fish and Game to create an outreach program to farmers and ranchers, to explain current voluntary programs to benefit listed species in return for providing incidental take protection to the participant.

Other Farm Bureau-sponsored bills on their way to the governor include a measure to improve funding for the California Department of Food and Agriculture Market Enforcement Program, which mediates disputes between growers and buyers, and a bill to streamline organic licensing.

Turning to the state budget situation and the upcoming campaign season, CFBF Administrator Rich Matteis noted that lawmakers will continue working on the budget plan into the fall.

Schwarzenegger left little doubt last week during a news conference that cutting state employee pensions remains one of his top priorities in budget negotiations. He's demanding that lawmakers roll back pension guarantees for future state hires as a condition to signing the budget.

Schwarzenegger told reporters that he and legislative leaders "are very close" on solving budget issues, but did not predict when a final agreement would be reached.

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.