By JOHN FLOWERS
MONTPELIER — While lawmakers wait to see whom Gov. James Douglas will appoint as the Vermont’s new secretary of agriculture, an Addison County state senator promises to file legislation that would require future agriculture secretaries to be elected by the general public.
“Historically, the governor has appointed someone and said, ‘You take care of agriculture,’” said Sen. Harold Giard, D-Bridport. “They’ve had no direction; they’ve had no vision; they didn’t know where to go, because no one told them where to go. So we went through a lot of dead years.”
Giard reasoned that if subject to an election, candidates for agriculture secretary would have to lay out their policies on farming during campaigns. They would therefore have to accumulate a record of accomplishment every two years.
“What I want to do is change … how the agricultural policy is laid before the state,” Giard said.
As an elected official, Giard believes the agriculture secretary would also be better insulated from potential conflicts of interest.
“It allows the secretary of agriculture to be separated from the various interest groups that he might come from — like the farm bureau, the cooperatives system — to be able to look under the rocks and see what’s going on,” Giard said.
It would also relieve the secretary from feeling beholden to the governor who appointed him or her.
“Being tied to the administration, (the agriculture secretary) is not independent to challenge what’s going on,” Giard said. “Being independently elected, he or she could be more independent, like the auditor of accounts or secretary of state, to look into things and dictate policy.”
Giard acknowledged his proposal is likely to face some tough challenges. For example, he anticipates some lawmakers will ask that if one secretary is elected, why not all of them? There’s also the notion that an agriculture secretary would have to spend a lot of time campaigning — at the potential expense of crafting farm policy — if he or she faces an election every two years.
But Giard believes that discussing agriculture on the campaign trail would be a good thing.
“I don’t see anything wrong about the secretary of agriculture being out, talking,” he said.
Giard is optimistic the Legislature will take up his proposal this session.
“I think it’ll get a fair hearing,” Giard said.
If the bill passes next year, it would take effect in 2008.
Meanwhile, Douglas administration spokesman Jason Gibbs said the governor hopes to have named a new agriculture secretary by the time the Legislature reconvenes in January. Steve Kerr announced his resignation from the post last month.
The governor is not a fan of Giard’s proposal.
“It’s important for a governor to appoint individuals that share his or her governing priorities and philosophies, and that (the secretary) be accountable to the state’s chief executive officer,” Gibbs said, in summarizing Douglas’ opinion on the issue.
Giard, who will return to the Senate agriculture committee for his second term, will offer other ideas he believes will strengthen Vermont’s farm community.
Among them is a proposal that Vermont use a portion of its annual $2.2 million agriculture promotion budget to advise farmers to curb their milk production, thereby making the product more scarce and therefore more financially valuable.
Giard noted that the rollercoaster price of milk hasn’t kept pace with inflation, with the 25-year average holding steady at $13.56 per hundredweight.
“If the farmer cuts back production by 2 percent, and milk goes to $17 (per hundredweight), that’s a $3.44 increase, which would increase income to farmers,” Giard said.
He explained that farmers have historically been encouraged in agricultural publications to produce more milk. As such, they have unwittingly contributed to their own economic doldrums, according to Giard.
“We’ve never really advertised to farmers about the gains of cutting back,” Giard said, adding that the alternative is “to stay in this mess.”