By Vicky Boyd

The San Joaquin Farm Bureau has endorsed four incumbents for the November general election as well as supported Proposition 6, which would repeal the recently enacted state fuel-tax increase. In addition, SJFB opposes San Joaquin County's cannabis tax ballot measure.

In weighing the choices, Kenny Watkins, a Linden-area cattle rancher and walnut grower who chaired the Endorsement Committee, said committee members spent numerous hours conducting personal interviews of candidates and researching others' positions on issues of importance to SJFB members.

"This time we looked at all of the races again to see if a candidate would provide a substantial or meaningful benefit to ag or have an impact on California ag policy," he said. "We weighed the pros and cons and the benefits they would have to the membership. We also looked at how our endorsement could possibly make a difference in the election."

The endorsees are U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham, 10th Congressional District Republican who the board also endorsed in the 2018 primary election; State Assemblymen Jim Cooper, District 9, Democrat; State Assemblymen Heath Flora, District 12, Republican; and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Democrat.

After the interviews and research, the Endorsement Committee approved by majority vote a list of recommendations to forward to the SJFB Board of Directors. Only candidates or ballot measures with at least a two-thirds majority vote from the board receive the SJFB endorsement.

"We get a lot of questions from members, and a lot of them look to the positions we take," said Bruce Blodgett, SJFB executive director. "That's why it's important that we vet the candidates and initiatives and take positions on races like this."

SJFB endorses Rep. Jeff Denham for Congress

Jeff Denham, a Turlock Republican, was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010. Representing the 10th District, which comprises southern San Joaquin County and Stanislaus County, Denham is running against political newcomer Josh Harder.

Also from Turlock, Democrat Harder is an adjunct instructor of business administration at Modesto Junior College and lists venture capitalist as his profession.

In receiving the SJFB endorsement, Denham said he would never take the support for granted. "I'm focused on this area because that's where I've grown up. It our business. It's a way of life. Agriculture is the No. 1 industry in the state, and it deserves strong representation."

Based on Denham's past record, Blodgett said, "He's been a good voice for agriculture."

Ken Vogel, SJFB second vice president, agreed. "Jeff has always been responsive to the needs of agriculture and to water issues, especially," he said.

Vogel also noted Denham understands the needs of specialty crop growers when it comes to labor and has worked to try to pass immigration reform.

During his tenure, Denham also has been accessible to Farm Bureau members, Watkins said.

"We support people who are willing to work with us and hear our views," he said. "He hasn't always voted down party lines, but he's truly done what he felt was the best thing for him and his district, and you can't fault him for that."

The same can't be said for Denham's opponent, Harder, who's been unresponsive to Farm Bureau inquiries. SJFB hosted a Congressional District 10 debate Aug. 20 in Stockton and invited both candidates. Only Denham attended, and the event was changed to a town hall meeting.

"We're just having a hard time pinning Harder down," Watkins said.

Sen Dianne Feinstein endorsed over de León

Democrat DianNe Feinstein of San Francisco has served four full terms as U.S. senator, having first been elected during a special election in 1992. She is running against fellow Democrat Kevin de León, who received the second-most votes during the June primary. Under the format approved by voters in 2010, the top two vote recipients in the primary, regardless of party affiliation, advance to the November general election.

De León currently is a state senator representing the 24th District, which encompasses downtown Los Angeles and East Los Angeles.

Feinstein said she was honored to receive the SJFB endorsement. Among her top issues are the new agricultural tariffs that are affecting farmers.

"Nearly every fruit and vegetable grown in the San Joaquin Valley is impacted, including almonds, grapes and cherries," she said, adding the state exports more than $20 billion in ag products annually. Another of the senator's priorities is immigration reform, since California has about 500,000 undocumented farmworkers. That's why she said she partnered with other like-minded groups to introduce the "Agricultural Worker Program Act."

The legislation would allow farmworkers to earn a "blue card" shielding them from deportation and eventually a green card, which would put them on a pathway to citizenship.

Although Farm Bureau hasn't agreed with Feinstein on all of the issues, Blodgett said her office is willing to listen to agriculture and work with the industry on many bills.

"We haven't agreed any of the time with de León," Blodgett said. "He would be an absolute disaster for agriculture 100 percent of the time."

Watkins agreed, saying de León has never given agriculture a vote of support, and either he or his staff have refused to meet with Farm Bureau members or don't show for appointments. On the other hand, all of the Endorsement Committee members have met with Feinstein at one time or another.

David Strecker, SJFB first vice president, had similar sentiments.

"We haven't always agreed with her decisions and the things that she's decided to push," Strecker said. "However, she does at least listen and talk to the ag community. Her opponent doesn't even want to talk."

Before becoming a SJFB officer, Vogel was a San Joaquin County supervisor. In that role, he said, Feinstein would take time to personally meet with county leaders when they traveled to Washington, D.C. In addition, Feinstein's staff were well-versed in the issues affecting San Joaquin County, Vogel said. "Sometimes people have different views, but if they listen, they might hear something else they didn't know," he said

Jim Cooper endorsed for state Assembly

Jim Cooper, a Democrat who came to the Assembly in 2014 with 30 years of law-enforcement experience, represents southern Sacramento County and the Lodi area. Within his district is $2.7 billion worth of agriculture.

Cooper is running against Harry He, a 23-year-old Democrat who grew up in south Sacramento and received a bachelor's degree in economics from the University of California, Merced in 2016. He currently is employed as an IT manager, according to his campaign website.

Cooper, an Elk Grove resident, said he was honored and humbled by the Farm Bureau's endorsement. "What I'm thankful for is the Farm Bureau," he said. "When I first came here, I knew nothing about ag. I was known as a cop, but my goal was to be the ag guy."

Cooper said he educated himself about the ag issues in his district by going on about 75 tours. The leading issue in his district by far is the Twin Tunnels, but labor cost and availability, over-regulation and water also are hot topics, he said.

Probably the toughest bill he's faced during his tenure dealt with ag overtime, which he voted against. "I got beat up by my caucus," Cooper said. "I felt ag overtime needed to be done right, and in its form it wasn't presented that way. I stand by my vote today."

Vogel praised Cooper's willingness to learn about agriculture and how he understands the importance of the industry in the northern San Joaquin County portion of his district.

"Again, he's a person who is open to listening and his staff is open to listening," Vogel said.

Assemblyman Heath Flora gets endorsement

A small businessman and volunteer firefighter, Heath Flora is a political newcomer, having been elected to the Assembly in 2016. The Ripon Republican represents an area east of Highway 99 to the Sierra foothills and from Galt to south to Turlock. District 12 also includes Manteca and portions of Tracy.

Flora is running against Democrat and Modesto attorney Robert Chase, who he also bested in the primary. In receiving the Farm Bureau endorsement, Flora said, "It means a great deal to me as a guy who's grown up in California agriculture my entire life, and to get the support of Farm Bureau in my home county is incredibly important."

One of the big issues Flora sees is the regulatory burden placed on agriculture and businesses by the State Water Resources Control Board and the California Air Resources Board.

Many of the people writing regulations and legislation are completely ignorant of what goes into successfully running a business or farm. As a result, their rules and laws can be overbearing or totally unworkable, Flora said.

"It's been a very challenging experience the last two years trying to educate them," he said. Abuse of the Private Attorney General Act of 2004 is another issue he said has plagued businesses during his current term and one he sees continuing into his next term.

Under the law, private citizens can pursue civil penalties on behalf of the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency.

"Parasitic" attorneys sue businesses over minor infractions and look for a settlement, Flora said. Many businesses, rather than fighting the charge in court, will write a check to get the attorney off their back.

"It's really blown into a huge issue," he said, adding he's hopeful future legislation can provide some relief.

In addition to sitting in on the Endorsement Committee candidate interviews and discussions, Strecker said he also has met with Flora a couple of other times on other issues.

"He understands what many do not in his area – what farmers need. He had some good ideas," Strecker said.

Either Flora or one of his staff frequently attend SJFB board meetings, and they've also been part of the annual Media/VIP Night.

"He represents an ag area, so he and his staff are very interested in ag and rural issues," Vogel said.

SJFB supports repeal of gas tax in Prop. 6

The SJFB Endorsement Committee supported Proposition 6, which would repeal the 12-cent-per-gallon gas excise tax and 20-cent-per-gallon diesel sales and excise tax increases signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2017. It also would repeal vehicle registration fee increases of $25 to $175, depending on vehicle value, that were part of the Senate Bill 1 transportation package.

In addition, the Republican-supported ballot measure would require all future gas tax increases to first be approved by voters.

"That was an easy one," Blodgett said. "The cost to our members and the cost to all of the people associated with ag with the diesel and gas taxes – it was a pretty simple discussion. We're already seeing what we thought was going to happen. The agency, in this case Caltrans, continues to grow its staff rather than building roads."

Watkins agreed, questioning whether previous fuel tax revenues were spent appropriately on road repair and construction or were diverted to other uses.

"We've had road taxes and fuel taxes for years and the cost of them to the business of ag and transportation – it's just ridiculous," he said. "When the state has a surplus of funds and they can't allocate them to maintain our infrastructure, it's a real shame."

SJFB opposes county's cannabis tax measure

The SJFB Endorsement Committee is opposing the county's cannabis tax ballot measure because it speeds up the process of allowing individual operations to grow, process and sell cannabis in agriculturally zoned portions of the county, Blodgett said.

"A vote against the tax is a vote against growing cannabis commercially in San Joaquin County," Watkins said.

Already, county residents may legally have up to six cannabis plants in their possession for personal use.

Watkins pointed to neighboring Calaveras County as an example of undesirable wide-scale cannabis operations before supervisors there voted in January to ban all commercial production. During the roughly two years Calaveras County allowed commercial cannabis production, more than 700 growers had registered. At the same time, illegal grows doubled.

Should San Joaquin County relax commercial cannabis production bans, Watkins said it also could place additional stress on the Sheriff's Department, which already is overburdened.

Even the Agriculture Commissioner's office could be affected, Strecker said.

"There's not enough information that the (cannabis) tax will pay for that extra burden," he said.

Opposing the cannabis measure follows Farm Bureau policy, which is against new taxes. Watkins said the measure, should it pass, also would create "more government," which also counters Farm Bureau policy.

San Joaquin County supervisors voted 3-2 in early July to put the cannabis tax proposal on the November ballot. Supervisors Bob Elliott and Chuck Winn cast the dissenting votes.

The measure must pass by two-thirds because it is a tax. If the proposal passes in November, a licensing system for indoor cultivation, distribution, manufacturing, medical-use retail and laboratory testing would become effective July 2019.

The tax starts at 3.5 percent but could go as high as 8 percent. It is predicted to raise about $3 million annually, most of which initially would go toward enforcing the county's cannabis rules. Although the ballot measure is only for unincorporated areas of San Joaquin County, all of the county, including city residents, vote on it, Vogel said.