CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture Kent Leonhardt is hoping the laboratories in his department can be fixed in 2019, because he says they have to be for the citizens of West Virginia.

He released his priorities for the 2019 Legislative Session just a couple weeks before the session begins, highlighting two bills with one looking at funding for the West Virginia Department of Agriculture (WVDA) for capital improvements.

Kent Leonhardt

.”The thing I want to get across to the public is our laboratories at the Department of Agriculture have been neglected for decades,” he told MetroNews. “Buildings were built in 1950 and remodeled in 1984 when they moved in and basically nothing has been done since. The equipment is getting outdated. We have laboratory people that do work for the USDA and other organizations around. We protect the citizens of WV whether it is food safety, forest safety, animal health and they are vitally important.”

Leonhardt said the biggest priorities for the WVDA are the re-passage of two bills vetoed in 2018, the Capital Improvement Fund HB 4166, and the Ag General Counsel Bill SB 322.

The Capital Improvement Fund was a bill to establish a special revenue fund for the funding of capital improvements to the Department of Agriculture’s facilities. The bill was vetoed by Governor Jim Justice in March, as Justice sighted that the WVDA construction and improvements can be funded by annual appropriations through the regular budget process.

“If we don’t do something soon we are going to lose the protection of the citizens of West Virginia and that is going to cost us a whole lot more in the future,” Leonhardt said. “So I am looking for ways on how to get funding for laboratories.

“I have support from many folks in the legislature. they all recognize the need but everybody recognizes how do we get the funding.”

Leonhardt added that they need to identify what the legislature is willing to put forth financially and is hoping sine if that money put forth for the WVDA can come from the budget surplus.

In the release from Leonhardt, it states a public survey, combined with the results of several stakeholder meetings held throughout the State will be used in the development of the strategic plan for potential funding. A draft plan will be released to lawmakers during the session, with a final plan to be released in March 2019.

“We have a study getting started on what type of funding and how to prepare for the future,” he said. “We need to set up a funding stream, testing and collect fees that we can use to fund but we have to make sure the fee structure is correct and have a funding stream before we start construction.

“We have questions to ask before construction like do we move to a new building that is already existing and remodel it? Do we tear down what we have here at Guthrie in Charleston and rebuild there? Those are the types of things we are looking at. We want to make sure we have a really good plan in place and then we can tell the legislature how many dollars we need. We can work together in coming up with a plan to fund it.”

The second bill Leonhardt is focusing on getting passed in 2019 is the Ag General Counsel Bill, with the purpose to authorize the Commissioner of Agriculture to employ a general counsel and any other such personnel necessary to perform the duties of the office.

This bill was also vetoed by Justice in March, as Justice said in his veto messages that the bill would provide an expansion of government within the Department of Agriculture by authorizing the employment of a general counsel and other support staff.

The release also said new priorities include the transfer of Grade A milk regulation from DHHR to the WVDA, modernization of auctioneer code, development of an agriculture investment fund, the creation of a farm-to-school pilot project and the transfer of the West Virginia Division of Forestry to the WVDA.

Leonhardt said they must start to get the citizens eating healthier.

“Let us talk about the funding with PEIA,” he said. “Imagine if we could spend a little more on local foods and encourage farm to school. We know that eating healthy can save money on health care costs so why aren’t we when we are looking at PEIA fixes, looking at having our citizens eating healthier. That would save money in the long road on PEIA whether it would be in the schools or institutions.

“We can’t just go along and buy the cheapest food for our prisons and our schools then we develop bad eating habits and 10,15, 20 years later, we are paying the costs through health care. We have to start thinking long term. Maybe if we spend a few more cents on a meal at our institutions, we can help on our healthcare costs down the road.”

The legislative sessions in West Virginia begin on January 9.