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Comprehensive immigration reform was the main topic of discussion at a Jan. 14 meeting between Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and officials from the Western Growers Association.

"The senator invited us to meet with him so he could learn where we stood on a number of important issues," said Tom Nassif, president and chief executive officer of the California and Arizona grower-shipper association.

The Western Growers Association contingent was Chairman of the Board Robby Barkley of Barkley Ag Enterprises in Yuma, AZ; Gary Pasquinelli of Pasquinelli Produce in Yuma; Will Rousseau of Rousseau Farming in Tolleson, AZ; Sonny Rodriguez of The Growers Co. in Somerton, AZ; WGA Vice President of Federal Government Affairs Cathy Enright; and AnnaMarie Knorr, who is the association's manager of government affairs in Arizona.

Mr. Nassif said that while the group spent the majority of the meeting discussing immigration reform, there was also time to touch on the current health care reform debate as well as legislation dealing with food safety, labor, climate change and water. Regarding immigration reform, WGA told Arizona's senior senator that the specialty crop industry is in favor of a comprehensive plan that includes a guest worker program for agriculture. If that is not politically palatable today, Mr. Nassif said that WGA would like to see the so-called AgJobs legislation passed, which deals specifically with agriculture. He said that Sen. McCain expressed support for agriculture's viewpoint but indicated that comprehensive immigration reform probably will not pass in 2010.

"Senator McCain believes that AgJobs will pass but only as part of a comprehensive package," Mr. Nassif said. "And he believes that it is much more likely that the issue will come up after the fall elections … maybe in a lame-duck session [late in 2010] or in 2011."

As for the health care reform debate, WGA is opposed to both the House and Senate bills that have passed. Mr. Nassif said that the association opposes mandated health care insurance provided by employers. The association also believes that the two bills do not adequately deal with the issue of seasonal workers. The WGA group gave the senator a handout that articulated the association's viewpoint. "WG is hard-pressed to understand how this type of seasonal industry can effectively provide health care under the parameters of the proposed legislation and still provide a healthy, cost-effective product to our country's families."

Additionally, Mr. Nassif said that the legislation appears to preclude not-for- profit health plan providers, such as Western Growers Assurance Trust, from participating in the insurance exchanges created by the legislation. Some legislators have told WGA that this technicality can be addressed in the regulatory phase, but the association is not comfortable with that solution. Sen. McCain again informed the group that he is sympathetic to their plight but said that Democrats are in charge of the health care reform debate and are not taking input from Republicans.

On the labor issue, Western Growers Association continues to list the defeat of The Employee Free Choice Act as its top priority. That bill would allow for unionization through card signatures rather than a secret ballot election.

Food-safety legislation is yet another area of concern for the organization. Western Growers Association believes that the bill passed by the House (the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009) does provide workable provisions for the fresh produce industry because it is a risk-based, commodity-specific approach. It is of utmost importance to the association that whatever bill finally becomes law takes this path.

Western Growers Association is opposed to the current climate change legislation, believing it will result in significant increases in energy costs and thus greatly affect the specialty crop industry. Mr. Nassif said that the specialty crop industry is heavily dependent upon affordably priced inputs in order to remain competitive domestically and in the global economy. He said that increasing energy costs by a significant percentage could result in a loss of business for U.S. specialty crop producers.

Another important topic of conversation was the California water crisis. The state experienced its third year of drought in 2009 as well as some unfavorable court rulings that further limited deliveries of water to farmers. The group told Sen. McCain that it is in favor of federal action to alleviate the water shortage crisis including the passage of the Water Transfer Facilitation Act of 2009. Among other things, this legislation will allow for the transfer of irrigation water among Central Valley Project coordinators.

Finally, WGA is opposed to the Clean Water Restoration Act because it removes the word "navigable" from the definition of "waters of the United States," which greatly expands the scope of the Clean Water Act and the reach of the federal government.