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Joint Ag Committee Tackles Tough Topics in 2017 Interim

Written by Hans Hunt

When the 2017 legislative session ended in March, the Joint Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Committee was tasked with addressing several issues during the 2017 interim. The main directives focused on four points – reviewing a list of all parcels of state land that are “stranded,” or fully landlocked, by federal lands; reviewing the state’s fire suppression account and how to it might be restructured to make reimbursement for firefighting costs easier to obtain; considering the formation of a state-led collaborative between private, state and federal interests which would work together to come up with better public land management practices; and reviewing the state fair and the grounds on which it is held, with the intent of making the facilities self-sufficient funding-wise. To address these issues, the committee held three meetings throughout the interim, one of those being held in Douglas to specifically address issues related to the state fair.

The issue of stranded state lands is one which was carried over from the previous interim. An issue that has long been on the table, this topic was brought forward in the 2017 session in the form of a bill which would have begun the lengthy of and complex process of transferring federally held public lands to the state.

The proposed legislation was ultimately pulled, but the committee decided to take another crack at the issue by reviewing all parcels of stranded state land, with the ultimate intent of trading stranded state parcels with the federal government. In return, the federal managers, be they Bureau of Land Management  or Forest Service, would turn over federally controlled parcels that are adjacent to or surrounded by state property.

The committee’s review during this interim included a review of the assessed values of the stranded state parcels, including income received from grazing leases, and whether any significant mineral revenues might be at stake.

Tackling another issue related to federal land management, the committee considered a proposed bill which would have created a state-led collaborative group that would work with a diverse swath of the private sector, as well as governmental entities at the local, state and federal level. The bill, brought up at the committee’s September meeting in Dubois, spurred a good deal of debate and public comment.

Many citizens expressed concerns that the bill as written was too broad and too vague to make the proposed collaborative an effective group. The bill died for lack of a motion, but the draft served to jump-start conversations about future efforts to create move forward on a general collaborative group and illustrated the fact that Wyoming citizens from all backgrounds and all points of the political spectrum have concerns about how public lands are currently being managed.

Another issue addressed at the committee’s Dubois meeting was that of diversions of certain firefighting costs to the state’s General Fund, rather than directly back into the State Fire Protection Revolving Account (SFPRA). The SFPRA goes to pay for firefighting equipment, surplus equipment and repairs. The state forestry division pays for the direct firefighting efforts and is then reimbursed by local fire districts after the fire has been put out.

The problem facing SFPRA is, under current statute, any money being reimbursed from other states or from the federal government goes back into Wyoming’s General Fund, rather than returning directly to the SFPRA. In recent years, there has been an increase in the amount of resources and manpower being sent out of state to fight fires in neighboring states. Because these costs are going to the General Fund, SFPRA is steadily losing its funding.

The committee drafted a bill to address this issue, which was passed at its October meeting in Douglas.

The final major point addressed by the committee in the 2017 interim was that of the Wyoming State Fair and its current revenue flows. To address this, the committee held an extra one-day meeting at the fairgrounds in Douglas on Oct. 18. At the center of the problem is the issue that the state fairgrounds, which require a year-round maintenance staff to upkeep the facilities, lose a good deal of money each year. In addition to this, the fair itself often operates at a loss.

Currently, the State Fair Advisory Board reports recommendations to the state Department of Agriculture.

It has long been a concern that the fairgrounds are not being utilized to the best extent possible outside of the two weeks or so that the state fair is being held. To address this, the Joint Agriculture Committee drafted a bill that would reform the current advisory board into a broader body that would have direct oversight over the fair and the grounds and would report directly to the governor. This bill is still in the works and should be voted on by the committee via email before Thanksgiving.

While it won’t be bringing as many bills before the full legislature as some other committees when the 2018 session convenes on Feb. 12, the Joint Agriculture Committee nonetheless took on a full plate of issues during this year’s interim. The committee has worked diligently throughout the interim to address the issues assigned to it, and its members on both the House and Senate side will stand ready to present the drafted legislation to their colleagues when the 2018 session begins.

It is hoped that the legislation drafted by the committee will help solve some financial issues concerning specific state accounts and facilities, and that these will in turn contribute towards helping Wyoming to navigate through the ongoing budget crunch.