Two bills aimed at changing the way members of Arkansas’ agricultural regulatory agency are appointed have had varying degrees of success in the state legislature.
Both bills would alter the appointment process for members of the Arkansas State Plant Board, which oversees licensing and regulations for agriculture in the state. Currently, the majority of the board is appointed directly by groups representing various industries like timber, seeds and livestock.
One bill, House Bill 1210, would require those groups to each submit two names to the governor, who would then appoint them to the board. That bill, sponsored by Rep. David Hillman, R-Almyra, is awaiting consideration in the House of Representatives.
Another bill, Senate Bill 80, would have allowed the governor to appoint all 18 members of the board directly. Members of the Senate Agriculture, Forestry and Economic Development Committee on Tuesday voted against the proposed legislation, which was sponsored by Republican Sen. David Wallace of Leachville.
Speaking before the vote, Wallace responded to criticism that the bill would introduce undue political influence to a non-partisan regulatory board, likening board members to “faceless men hiding in the shadows.”
“There are folks in control that don’t trust the governor, or the governors going forth, to make the right decision because they’re too political,” Wallace said. “Having heard some of the testimony today and having seen actions in the past I ask all of you, do you really think that these organizations that we’re talking about are not political?”
Wallace said it was a necessary effort to keep the regulatory agency in check since the legislature has no influence over it. Sen. Bill Sample, R-Hot Springs, said the bill would have given the executive branch too much control over agriculture policy.
“When you start loading up a regulatory agency that’s supposed to be fair to everyone with political appointees, then it becomes a real problem because whoever that appointee is may seek out people [who are] like-minded, and you lose the expertise and the knowledge that’s on that board,” Sample said.
Though not explicitly mentioned during Tuesday’s committee meeting, several members of the public who spoke in favor of SB80 are also proponents of dicamba, an herbicide that has been blamed for widespread damage to non-tolerant crops. The board has been at the center of the controversy since it first banned the use of the chemical in 2016.
Dan Scheiman is bird conservation director for Audubon Arkansas and a vocal opponent of dicamba. He says he’s not surprised at attempts to change the makeup of the regulatory board.
“Who knows what other controversial issue might pop up in the future that then the governor has a certain point of view, he or she could push that issue forward with the representatives that he or she appointed rather than have the various agricultural associations be able to sort it out amongst themselves and keep that balance of power that they’ve had for over a century,” Scheiman said.
Scheiman said both bills would put undue political influence on a board tasked with regulating agricultural practices in the state. While HB1210 awaits a vote in the full House, Scheiman says an Arkansas Supreme Court decision on a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state Plant Board is also pending.