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Dept. of Agriculture wanted by Farm Bureau

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

- President Don Villwock updates county members on Indiana Farm Bureau policies

Indiana Farm Bureau Inc. is a grassroots organization. It is active in lobbying at both the state and national levels; that may be where the similarity to other lobbyist organizations ends.

Farm Bureau supports policies initiated at the local level. As Jon Nicoson told members Monday night at the 4-H fairgrounds, "If you want to see a policy initiated, write it down on a note and drop it off at Farm Bureau Insurance. They will see to it that we get it."

From the local organization, policies are reviewed and voted on at state and national levels, where dozens of lobbyists employed by Farm Bureau work with state senators, state representatives and Congress to pass legislation.

Indiana Farm Bureau President Don Villwock spoke to a crowd estimated at more than 200 Monday night.

He brought the Clay County organization news on four fronts: property tax, the Farm Bureau's political action committee (PAC), the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) and the possibility of creating an Indiana Department of Agriculture.

Political Action Committee

"Farm Bureau is involved all the way from the courthouse to the halls of Congress," Villwock, who hails from the Edwardsport area, told the crowd after supper.

More than 1,000 suggested policies have been sent from Indiana's 92 county Farm Bureau members to Indianapolis this year. Villwock chose to talk about four subjects that are "on his radar.

Property tax

Property tax increased 24 percent after reassessment, even though Farm Bureau had assurances that property taxes would decrease. The only two counties that did not see an increase in property tax were counties where riverboat gambling was the major industry, Villwock said.

While Indiana lawmakers passed an 11th hour measure to give relief to home owners, property taxes remain high on farmland, he said. Farmers saw assessments rise from $495 an acre to $1,050 (baseline) and, "that is not good," he said. "In Indiana we do not assess farmland by its market value but by its earning value.

"Farm Bureau is working diligently to try to fix the problem."

In addition to working on legislation, Farm Bureau has endorsed Congressional candidates for more than 20 years and has, in the past few years, become involved in some state races.

A committee made up of Farm Bureau county presidents chose to endorse Mitch Daniels for governor after listening to presentations from he and Gov. Joe Kernan.

Daniels, the Republican challenger, won over Farm Bureau with his position on property taxes, among other issues.

"My goal is to eventually eliminate property taxes," Daniels was quoted by Villwock as saying.

Daniels also pleased Farm Bureau leaders by promising to create an environment to increase the number and quality of jobs in the state.

Also, Daniels pledged to reform IDEM.

IDEM reform

Farm Bureau wants to see the permitting process removed from IDEM's authority and given to a new state department of agriculture.

IDEM should not be permitting, it should be doing things like protecting residents when there is a toxic spill, Villwock said.

By way of example, Villwock said a permit to expand a livestock operation on a local farm can take a minimum of six months, when it could take as little as two weeks, if permitting was done by competent people at Purdue University.

A similar program in another state has proven the plan would work, Villwock said.

"I want to emphasize that agriculture is very supportive of a clean environment," Villwock said. "But we would rather work with an agency that will work to help you get into compliance (with federal and state environmental laws) rather than fine you into compliance.

"(In supporting Daniels) our members, through this vote, are really saying enough is enough."

Proposed department of agriculture

Farm Bureau has "flip-flopped" its position on a state department of agriculture, Villwock said. The group decided to look into the prospect of a new state agency after learning Indiana is just one of four states that do not have agriculture departments. Arkansas, Alaska and Rhode Island are the other three and Arkansas is working toward initiating such an agency.

The in-depth study made by Indiana Farm Bureau of 37 state departments of agriculture changed delegates minds.

While Indiana's lieutenant governor is the state commissioner of agriculture, the lieutenant governor has more than 40 other mandated jobs.

For that reason, Villwock said, agriculture is getting short shrift in Indiana. While Illinois is developing dozens of alcohol-ethanol plants and Ohio is developing as many as 40, Indiana is developing just two. Ethanol is a corn product that can be used to extend the nation's supply of gasoline.

Villwock is convinced a new department of agriculture would save the state money rather than adding to taxpayers' burden.

"I don't think its responsible for Farm Bureau to ask for more government unless it costs less money," he said.

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