The agriculture sector is a small world. For Kerry Golden, executive director of the House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, nearly three decades of experience in politics taught her almost everything she needed to know about ag in the commonwealth.
In an exclusive interview, City & State spoke with Golden about her work in Harrisburg, what gets often overlooked during the legislative process and just how many industries fall under agriculture’s umbrella.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
How has the definition of agriculture changed over the years and what’s included under the Department of Agriculture’s purview now?
The definition itself hasn't really changed in our statutes … We usually define (farming) as a normal agricultural operation and the activities and practices that farmers customarily engage in in the production and marketing of crops and livestock and livestock products. So, the definition of ag hasn't changed, but the things that fall under the Department of Ag – the regulatory authority has expanded over the years.
What else falls under the Department of Agriculture’s oversight that not many people would guess is considered ag?
The general person who doesn't know anything about ag, when you say the word ‘agriculture,’ I think they don't automatically go to food. And if they go to cows, pigs, chickens, crops, grown corn … I think it's secondary when they translate that into food. And food safety is a pretty big deal. The Department of Ag is actually moreso a regulatory agency than anything else. They do have their Bureau of Market Development, which promotes agriculture, but their main responsibility is regulatory in nature, for livestock and consumer health protection.
There's actually a State Horse Racing Commission, which is separate from the Department of Ag but it is chaired by the Secretary of Ag and the officers are in the same building. But that's a form of entertainment and gambling, and you wouldn't necessarily think of that as agriculture. But, of course, the welfare of the horses is something that's important, as well.
Weights and measures and amusement ride safety are things that fall under the Department of Ag and have for many years. That started with those who wanted to make sure that a bushel is a bushel of corn. They want to make sure that the butcher at the deli is not putting their thumb on the scale … Everything is calibrated to make sure that the consumer is getting what they pay for.
And this division of weights and measures is pretty broad. They have the ability to regulate any weighing device or timing device, like a parking meter, interestingly enough, or the dryer timing in a laundromat. You know you're paying for that time. You want to ensure that when you say you set it for 50 minutes, you get 50 minutes. They don't have the personnel to go into every laundromat and do that, but if there's a complaint, they're able to (address it).
And then, in 2004, we added the responsibility for the Department of Ag to regulate the facilities that sell consumer fireworks.
On the topic of fireworks law, can you discuss the recent reforms and how those negotiations went down?
I'm actually quite proud of how we were able to navigate and negotiate and balance what legislators wanted on behalf of their constituents and what local government wanted on behalf of their membership … The freestanding fireworks law that we rewrote in 2004 was incorporated into the tax code. There were problems with the drafting. There were constitutional problems. I said, ‘Look, if that goes into law, the industry is going to sue,’ and they did. It went into law and the industry sued.
(Under the 2004 law), people misused fireworks and irresponsibly used them, so the municipal groups were asking for some more definitive language in the law to be able to actively implement a permit process at a reasonable fee. They wanted to have more ability to wrap their arms around it whereas we also wanted to maintain the ability for Pennsylvania residents to go ahead and continue to purchase and use them.
(State Rep.) Frank Farry was the prime sponsor of this new bill. He worked on what's called SR6, which had to do with recommendations for the fire and EMS community, and the fireworks law was part of that. He was able to negotiate and find a balance – and what best worked for both sides – and we were finally able to get something put in place that hopefully will curb that irresponsible use and still allow consumers to enjoy fireworks. It doesn't become effective until Sept. 5, because when it was signed into law, it had a 60-day effective date, so we'll see its effects during the next major federal holiday on New Year’s Eve.
What occurs behind the scenes before committee meetings and what do people not realize that plays a critical role in the legislative process?
Staff are key. It's impossible for the legislators themselves to understand or become an expert on every single issue that they have to vote on. I've been here 29 years, so it's my job to understand the issues and explain them to my bosses, who are all of the Republican members. My Democratic counterpart, Destiny, and I worked really well together. She's been here 17 years. She's got an Ag background (and) is certainly helpful.
I have a relationship with not only the lobbyists, but the people who are leaders, the leadership folks in the ag organizations or even the municipal level – the township supervisors, the (state) borough's association, County Commissioners Association. They’ll all, at some point, have a reason to weigh in on a piece of ag-related legislation. So getting to know those people is really important.
My job is to make my members look good. But in the long run, we understand that there are times when my member might be the prime sponsor, and something I may have written on their behalf goes into a Senate bill. All that language goes into a Senate bill and the Senate bill might get to the governor's desk. When I was younger, I used to throw a fit about that. It used to drive me crazy. But at this point, it doesn't matter who gets the credit, as long as we get the job done.