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Calif. Senate majority leader rips ag secretary, threatens to abolish Dept. of Food & Ag

by Rand Green | June 21, 2009
California Senate Majority Leader Dean Florez, who chairs the Senate Committee on Food & Agriculture, sent a letter June 15 to A.G. Kawamura, secretary of the California Department of Food & Agriculture, sharply criticizing him for his "refusal to participate" in a Senate committee hearing scheduled for the following day. The subject of the hearing was "Evaluating the consolidation and elimination of the California Department of Food & Agriculture."

Mr. Florez said in his letter that he found Mr. Kawamura's intent not to attend the meeting "shocking" and "not acceptable," and added that it "lends strong support to the idea that, perhaps, the taxpayers are not receiving sufficient benefit from their investment in the Offices of the Secretary."

Mr. Florez' office e-mailed a copy of the letter to The Produce News along with a press release, also dated June 15, under the subject line, "Ag secretary defies governor's call to cut costs," and headlined, "Kawamura snubs Senate cost-savings probe intended to save critical services."

Following the June 16 hearing, Sen. Florez said in a written statement that Mr. Kawamura's "absence was a strong message to the legislature that we were on the right track to suggest eliminating his position and his executive management. I don't think the agricultural community realizes just how much damage his refusal to participate has caused for the future of CDFA."

Michael Jarvis, CDFA deputy secretary for public affairs, told The Produce News the afternoon of June 16 that Mr. Kawamura had missed the hearing not because he did not wish to attend or because he refused to consider cost-cutting measures but because he had an important prior commitment. Specifically, he was in San Diego meeting with some of his counterparts from Mexico regarding control of the Asian citrus psyllid, a potentially devastating pest that could cost California citrus growers many millions of dollars.

Mr. Jarvis noted that the hearing was originally scheduled for June 10, and when it was rescheduled, it resulted in a scheduling conflict. "This wasn't a snub," he said.

Mr. Jarvis, who himself attended the hearing along with other department officials, said that CDFA is quite willing to look at ways to cut costs and had already taken many steps to do so. His office had reduced its staff from 11 people to three in the last year, for example. But the committee was suggesting downsizing or eliminating the department by "sunsetting" some programs and by moving many of the department's functions to other agencies. "We don't really think there is a whole lot of cost savings" achieved by simply shifting a program "from A to B," he said.

He noted that the value of California's agricultural products is nearly $37 billion "before it even leaves the fields" and that California has "the most productive farm system in the history of the planet."

CDFA gets about $100 million from the state's general fund, which is about 20 percent of "our entire budget" and amounts to just $3 per person per year, he said. More than two-thirds of the department's budget comes from user fees and federal funds.

"We recognize that California is in a financial crisis, but at the same time, we just think it is important to keep the system we have in place, even if we are going to continue to look at cutbacks," he said.

A staff member in Sen. Florez office, speaking on condition of anonymity but stating that his comments could be attributed "to the senator's office," told The Produce News June 17 that "from the senator's perspective -- and the letter [to Mr. Kawamura] says it perfectly -- this is arguably the most important thing the department has faced, and the secretary did not come to defend the department." He did confirm that total elimination of the California Department of Food & Agriculture is under consideration by the Senate, but added that it does not mean "critical function" will not get accomplished. "In my mind, you can't eliminate the department without essentially consolidating essential functions into other places."

Mr. Jarvis expressed concern that transferring some programs of importance to agriculture would leave farmers without an advocate for their industry to oversee those programs.