Senators OK bill on board selection

A Senate committee on Tuesday gave a do-pass recommendation to a bill revamping how some members of the state Plant Board are selected.

House Bill 1210, by Rep. David Hillman, R-Almyra, now goes to the Senate, albeit amended.

The amended bill, as approved on a voice vote by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Forestry and Economic Development, combines Plant Board memberships now held separately by the horticulture and nursery industries. The amended bill also adds a farmer to specifically represent the soybean industry.

The Plant Board has 16 members with voting privileges. Seven are selected by the governor, including two farmers who represent rice and cotton farmers; nine members are selected by various agriculture trade groups.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza in late 2019 ruled that the portion of state law allowing private industry to directly appoint nine members was unconstitutional. The case, which is rooted in the five-year dispute over the use of dicamba, has been appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court.

HB1210 would still allow the private groups to be represented but by having them present two nominees to the governor for appointment to the board. The bill goes to the full Senate. Even with approval there, the bill must return to the House because of the Senate amendments.

Terry Fuller, Plant Board chairman, said in a statement that the bill weakens specialty-crop growers' representation on the board.

"The impact of the Arkansas State Plant Board reaches far beyond row crops," Fuller said. "Our responsibilities extend as far as protecting every consumer within the state."

Fuller said by telephone later that the statement reflected his views as chairman, not the views of the board, which hasn't taken a vote or issued a statement on the bill to revamp its composition. The board voted unanimously, with the backing of the attorney general's office, to appeal the ruling by Piazza, who has since retired.

Fuller's statement also noted the Arkansas Grown program of the state Department of Agriculture, the Plant Board's umbrella agency. The program promotes small farmers and producers, including those in horticulture and the nursery industry. "Their representation is being diminished," Fuller said in the statement.

Fuller also said by telephone that neither he nor other Plant Board members have been asked by legislators to testify on legislation to revise the board's composition. He also said he personally hasn't asked to be put on a witness list for testimony.

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