By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily
A bill to create a state agency to promote Wyoming’s agriculture industry through investments and marketing was approved by a House committee on Thursday despite concerns that it would increase the size of government.
Senate File 122, creating the Wyoming Agriculture Authority, was approved on a vote of 5-4 by the House Agriculture Committee for debate on the floor of the House.
The bill was prepared in response to problems created for Wyoming’s meat producers by the concentration of the nation’s meat packing industry in the hands of four large companies, said primary sponsor Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas.
“It acknowledges that this is not an even playing field,” he said. “It’s simply saying that this very fragile, unreliable meat processing situation we have is unacceptable to everybody.”
But Boner said the authority could also help with the promotion and marketing of other Wyoming agriculture commodities such as wool, sugar beets and grains.
“The current crisis has to do with meat processing, but who’s to say the next one won’t have to do with wheat or sugar beets or wool?” he said.
The bill would create a board to help the Legislature with the creation of the Agriculture Authority, which would then be authorized to sell revenue bonds to raise money to help with the creation of small and mid-sized meat processing plants.
The authority would also take over the marketing and promotion of Wyoming’s agricultural products from the state Department of Agriculture, Boner said, leaving the department responsible for consumer protection issues.
The measure was supported by several agriculture organizations as a way to help Wyoming meat producers break away from the influence of the four companies that control about 80% of the meat packing industry.
“This is a piece of legislation about which we are excited,” said Jim Magagna, director of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. “We see tremendous potential in being able to move forward with something like this to help, certainly our industry, the beef industry, but all of the agriculture industries in Wyoming.”
Several committee members said they were hesitant to approve the bill, given the fact there was little information on what the authority might cost.
“I agree this is a very important philosophy, but I am reticent to agree to something that is going to encumber the state … without knowing what that cost will actually be,” said Rep. Scott Heiner, R-Green River. “In my mind, we’re growing government here without knowing what it’s going to cost.”
But supporters argued the authority’s board would work with the Legislature’s Joint Agriculture Committee for up to two years to determine the details of the authority’s operation before the authority would take any official action.
Supporters on the committee said they also liked the idea of giving Wyoming’s meat producers a chance to operate independently of the major meat packing companies.
“What we’re hoping to do is bring back a little bit of the control from the major packing plants,” said Committee Chair Rep. John Eklund, R-Cheyenne. “This gives enough flexibility and latitude for businesses within Wyoming to take back a part of that market share.
Committee members amended the bill to require a plan for the authority to be in place by 2023 and then added language saying if no such plan was developed by mid-2023, the authority would be dissolved.