JEFFERSON CITY -Missouri has six statewide elected officials and a Republican lawmaker said Tuesday he wants to add one more for the agriculture department, even if it's someone who has never set foot on a farm.
The House Agriculture Policy Committee heard a proposed constitutional amendment Tuesday that would make Missouri's agriculture director an elected position instead of continuing to allow the governor to appoint someone to the role with the approval of the Senate.
The amendment would create a "secretary of agriculture" and the elected official would serve a term of four years with a two-term limit. The elected secretary of agriculture would have all the same duties as the current director of the agriculture department, Jon Hagler.
Sponsor Rep. Jay Houghton, R-Martinsburg, said it was time that Missouri had an "unbiased leader" in agriculture. He also said that an elected official would make the issues that impact the 108,000 farms in Missouri more widely known throughout the state.
"They would be able to seek policies and procedures that are truly best for Missouri's agriculture," he said.
Rep. Ed Schieffer, D-Troy, called the proposal an "attack" since none of the Democrats were asked to co-sign on the constitutional amendment and wanted to know if the amendment was meant as a charge against the governor.
"Is there a personal attack here toward the governor?" Schieffer asked Houghton.
Houghton said there was no such attack and Rep. Tony Dugger, R-Hartville, said the proposal if passed would take effect in 2016 so the current governor and agriculture director wouldn't be affected.
Other committee members said they were more concerned that if the head of Missouri's Agriculture Department is left to a vote of citizens, then there's a chance that someone with no expertise or sufficient knowledge in agriculture could be elected.
"Most likely the governor is going to appoint someone who is from that field," said Dugger. He said this may not be the case with citizens and someone who doesn't have the best interests for agriculture could be elected.
Rep. Warren Love, R-Osceola, said he lives in a rural county and he said that before he voted on the proposed amendment, he needed to go home and see what his constituents thought about it.
"In the last state election, most of the office holders were elected based upon state population," Love said. He also said that the state population mostly reflects urban areas.
Houghton said he understood concerns about taking a vote to urban areas but under present law the governor has the power to appoint a director without agriculture experience. He said Hagler is a qualified director but this may not be the case with the future appointed director.
Leslie Holloway of the Missouri Farm Bureau spoke in opposition of the proposal and said the bureau has serious concerns about taking a vote to urban areas and about money that would come into the state not in the interest of agriculture.
Houghton said the intent of this proposal is to start a discussion so that that the necessity of agriculture is realized.
"I want people to start talking about it now," Houghton said. "I think it's something that's real important to rural Missouri."
Houghton said there are currently 12 other states that have an elected agriculture and he said he thinks this system has worked fine for them.
If the General Assembly approves the constitutional amendment it would then go to a vote of the people in 2014. If Missouri citizens vote yes to this measure, the first secretary of agriculture would be elected in 2016.