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The Garden State… With No Gardener

At least that is the outcome should Governor John S. Corzine have his proposed budget approved in New Jersey. Claiming a need for austerity, the governor has proposed a budget that is $500 million dollars less than the one passed the previous year.

Among other things, the budget would eliminate three departments: Agriculture, Personnel and the Commerce Commission. If passed, this would make New Jersey the only state in the nation not to have an agriculture department.

We doubt it will actually come to pass. As the New Jersey Farm Bureau points out:

“Closing the NJDA saves the state budget very little money, since most of its vital services will need to be transferred to other state agencies,” says Richard Nieuwenhuis, president of the Farm Bureau.

“After all the essential functions are reassigned, this could mean a savings of as little as $300,000 or $400,000.

In other words, the governor did not propose to end most of the functions of the department, so the whole thing is probably best seen as a political effort.

Here is how it could work: Propose to take away from a passionate constituency — farmers — something that the farmers value greatly — a seat at the cabinet table — but that doesn’t cost much money. Then, in exchange for the farmers backing something enormous — say the Governor’s dead-on-arrival plan to raise highway tolls and use the money to fund debt of a new non-profit corporation he hopes to set up — the Governor relents and gives them back their own department.

Still and all, the fact that it would be proposed at all shows the increasing political weakness of US farmers. How could it be otherwise? When Abraham Lincoln was President, 90% of Americans were farmers; now it is around 2%.

In fact, the only thing preserving the power of the farmer on the federal level is that the US Supreme Court lacks the power to change the composition of the United States Senate.

In Reynolds vs. Sims (1964), the US Supreme Court ruled that districts in the state legislatures had to be roughly equal in population. As a practical matter, this meant that farmers, typically residing in rural districts that had many acres but few people, would lose political power while urban and suburban interests gained political power.

Although, through subsequent decisions such as Wesberry v. Sanders (1964) and Board of Estimate of City of New York v. Morris (1989), the Court extended the “one man one vote” rule to the House of Representatives and most local offices, the constitutional allocation of two Senators per state has ensured the most rural states have an influence disproportionate to their population in the US Senate.

Thus farmer influence at the state level is declining faster than at the federal level and so we might expect more gambits such as this one from Governor Corzine.

We think farmers still have the power — especially combined with the other constituencies the Department of Agriculture serves such as a rural preservation program loved by environmentalists — to save the Department of Agriculture in New Jersey, we just hope the price extracted won’t be too high.

It would be a very sad thing to lose the New Jersey Department of Agriculture. It has a reputation for innovation and efficiency, and the people who have worked there have always impressed us as diligent advocates for their state.

Besides, the focus on a small department is a distraction. In 2002, when the citizens of New Jersey seemed no less prosperous, the budget was $17.8 billion and that included a Department of Agriculture. Now the proposal is for a budget of $33 billion and that is without a Department of Agriculture. It makes one pretty certain that whatever New Jersey’s budget problems, and they are real, the problems have precious little to do with the Department of Agriculture.

A state that proclaims itself the “Garden State” should know that agriculture requires a little attention if it is to thrive. The Governor’s proposal won’t save much money, but will take agriculture away from the table where decisions are made.

When the farms are gone, what new motto will the Governor propose for the license plates?

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