In Delta, governor calms on NAFTA
Outing a chance to meet farmers
STUTTGART — On his second day visiting farming communities in the Arkansas Delta, Gov. Asa Hutchinson defended free trade and said he hopes to meet with the president of Mexico next month.
The Thursday visit at the University of Arkansas Agriculture Division’s Rice Research and Extension Center was one stop on a seven-county “Turnrow Tour” of east and northeast Arkansas farms.
Rice farmers, scientists and businessmen turned out to talk to the governor — including Danny Kennedy, president and chief executive officer of Riceland Foods. Arkansas produces more rice than the rest of the nation combined.
Hutchinson celebrated gains for farmers at the stop. He noted that China had agreed to import American rice and that Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency with whom he met in Arkansas last month, would be more farmer friendly.
The governor also said he planned to meet with
Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto when pressed by one attendee to urge President Donald Trump to first do no harm when it comes to the North American Free Trade Agreement.
J.R. Davis, a spokesman for the governor, said later that the meeting with Pena Nieto is in the planning stages and has not been finalized.
“Modernizing NAFTA — that’s fine,” Hutchinson said. “It’s probably a good idea, but if we modernize it, we’ve got to keep in mind that we want to make sure that we keep that trading relationship expanding versus shrinking.”
After the event, Hutchinson said the trip to Mexico — planned for late September — would include visits with businessmen and an open house at Arkansas State University’s new campus in Mexico.
“Mexico is a very significant trading partner to Arkansas,” Hutchinson said. “We want to make sure that maintains strength and to assure them that while we renegotiate NAFTA and
strengthen that, we certainly don’t want to reduce that trading relationship that we have with Mexico.
During the meeting, farmers pressed the governor about the future water supply, a failed plan to reorganize the Arkansas Agriculture Department and the possibility of eliminating tax exemptions for farmers.
Kennedy said the state should be open to private investment for big projects that aim to reduce the need for groundwater by harnessing the White and Arkansas rivers.
“If we can figure out a way to do that — put in private money — and not lose control of the water, I think there’s a lot of workable solutions,” the Riceland CEO said. “Growers are the best in the world at trying to figure out how to get something done. Those discussions, I think, would really benefit the state and more than just agriculture.”
The Grand Prairie Area Demonstration Project and Bayou Meto Water Management Project are expected to cost more than $1 billion, but federal money for the projects had dwindled, Kennedy said.
Hutchinson said the project plans might need to be changed to lower the cost.
“These projects need to be re-examined to make them work under the more constrained investment commitment from the federal government,” he said. “That’s what I’ve asked the irrigation districts to do, to re-engage engineering services to reexamine the original plans, to see how they need to be adjusted so they can come to fruition sooner than 50 years.”
During the meeting, Robert Seidenstricker, who grows rice and soybeans about 15 miles north of Stuttgart, expressed concern about a proposal to reorganize the state Agriculture Department — a plan that the House defeated during the regular session earlier this year.
Seidenstricker said the plan could politicize entities such as the Plant Board, which largely has operated free of politics since its creation in 1917.
“I am just 100 percent for keeping those agencies as independent as they are,” Seidenstricker said.
Supporters have said House Bill 1725 by Rep. Dan Douglas, R-Bentonville,
would have saved about $600,000 a year through various management tools involving the Agriculture Department and its several entities, including the Plant Board, the Livestock and Poultry Commission and the Arkansas Forestry Commission.
Hutchinson said Thursday that greater integration would allow the state agriculture agencies to respond to problems as a group instead of operating in separate silos.
Also during the meeting, Gary Sebree, a rice farmer, said the possible end of agriculture-focused tax exemptions was of concern to him. He said a tax exemption on agricultural inputs like seed keep his business above water.
The Legislature formed a task force to look into ending some exemptions to lower the overall tax rate, Hutchinson said.
“I would encourage you to look at this as an opportunity to show the value that those exemptions bring and make your case,” the governor said. “I think the Legislature would be very responsive to that message.”