In the wake of a June 16 Senate Food and Agriculture hearing — chaired by California state senator Dean Florez — the list of grower-shippers displeased with the senator appears to be growing. The hearing focused on the senator’s proposal to consolidate or eliminate the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

“It would make absolutely no sense to destroy the agency that oversees diseases — everything from cow pox to anthrax, from the West Nile virus to some of the most dangerous pests that can destroy agriculture and our landscape,” said Manuel Cunha, president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League. “Who does he represent? What constituency?”

The proposal is designed to provide a more streamlined, more efficient government entity, Florez said, and to reduce the cost of the department for taxpayers. His proposal includes — among other things — moving oversight of fertilizer, chemical and pest control to the Department of Pesticide Regulation, giving the tasks of health and animal inspection to other agencies and eliminating the department’s marketing efforts by converting to private, non-profit corporations the state’s roughly four dozen marketing commissions.

“By breaking up CDFA, it certainly doesn’t look as if it would increase efficiencies,” said Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape & Tree Fruit League, Fresno. “You’d probably be going the other direction, and I doubt it would save money.”

California taxpayers foot the bill for less than 30% of the agency’s budget, said Mike Jarvis, the department’s deputy secretary of public affairs. State tax dollars in the agency’s budget amount to $3.67 for each California resident, he said, but combined grower fees and federal funds in the budget make up more than $15 per resident.

”The problem is there’s an assumption that if you just move things, it’s going to be cheaper, and it doesn’t work that way,” Jarvis said.

The ratio between tax dollars and the combined grower fees and federal funds would seem to be the earmark of an efficiently run agency.

“Not when you have a $24 billion dollar budget deficit,” Florez said. “Every dollar counts.”

He is particularly critical of the department’s administrative costs, which he puts at about $13 million annually.

“State government is not devoid of personnel specialists, information technology folks, accountants and lawyers,” Florez said. “Why can’t we streamline these functions by using other existing state departments?”

Another California lawmaker, Assemblywoman Jean Fuller whose district overlaps the senator’s district and who is a member of the Assembly’s Agriculture committee, said the Food and Agriculture Department is already streamlined.

“We now have all the expertise under one roof; it’s a one-stop shop,” Fuller said. “I think it would be crazy to have it stuck in every closet and cranny across the other state agencies that may not understand the issues.”

Opponents of the senator’s proposal do not criticize his attempts at cost cutting to reduce the state’s huge budget deficit.

“While we all need to look where we can be more efficient and we constantly need to review, I think the proposal as presented really doesn’t show us the merit of moving ahead,” Bedwell said.

During a global recession is not the time to emasculate the state agency, Fuller said.

“I think it’s the wrong move to cut the department that represents one of the state’s leading industries, especially when we’re trying to get our economy rolling again,” she said. “I really question whether this is the time to attack the department.”

The annual field value of California’s overall agriculture production is approaching $40 billion. One reason why the agriculture industry is giving the senator’s plans the cold shoulder may boil down to dollars and cents.

“Farming is one of the few economic segments in California that has grown the last few years while nearly everything else has contracted, and we’re in the third straight year of drought.” Jarvis said. “Why would you want to disassemble one of the pieces of the most productive farm system in the history of the world?”

The industry’s economic growth does not mean the department has ignored cost-cutting efforts, Jarvis said. He pointed to his own department within the agency. Since joining the department last year, his staff has been trimmed from 13 employees to three, he said.

The Florez vs. agriculture pot actually began to boil the day before the hearing when the senator’s office issued a news release attacking Food and Agriculture Secretary A.G. Kawamura. The release accused Kawamura of snubbing “…the senate’s cost-savings probe intended to save critical services” and charged him with defying the governor’s call to cut costs.

What actually happened, Jarvis said, was Florez twice postponed the hearing. The secretary had planned to attend, but the senator rescheduled the hearing on a day when Kawamura had an important prior commitment. In his place, Kawamura sent Rayne Pegg, deputy secretary of legislation.

The important prior commitment, Jarvis said, was a meeting in San Diego on eradicating the Asian citrus psyllid, the pest that can carry the bacterial disease, huanglongbing or HLB. Officials from Mexico, Belize the U.S. and California attended, he said.

Some of the senator’s critics see an ulterior motive to his proposal. Florez announced plans last year to seek the Democratic Party’s nomination for lieutenant governor in 2010.

“I don’t begrudge the concept; I probably question the motivation behind it,” Bedwell said.

Cunha was more blunt.

“This is all about his running for lieutenant governor,” he said. “Apparently he’s only concerned about his frog-leaping into his next elected position.”

The accusations are nothing but a subterfuge, Florez said.

“I think there are better ways to run for higher office than to give a department like CDFA a serious review,” he said.

The verbal scuffles will likely amount to nothing more than ventilating. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office has signaled that the governor opposes the senator’s proposal. Even if the proposal were to become a bill and clear the legislature, it would likely be vetoed upon hitting the governor’s desk.