State Rep. Richard Heath, of Mayfield, was chosen to wield the gavel for the House Agriculture Committee when Kentucky Republicans assumed control of the chamber for the first time in 95 years.
Standing committees are the first line of review for bills being considered by the General Assembly; legislation must pass out of a committee before going to a floor vote. Chairs of standing committees are appointed by House Speaker Jeff Hoover and other leadership, and have discretion in deciding which bills get heard by their committees. They also moderate discussions between lawmakers and advocates who testify for or against legislation.
Heath is a native of Graves County, and grew up on a small farm where his father raised corn and pigs. Heath said his dad was ready to retire about the same time he graduated from high school, so Richard got a loan and bought the family farm. He worked at Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in Union City, Tennessee, for a few years, then left to farm full time, adding soybeans, wheat and tobacco to the mix.
After graduating from Murray State University with a degree in agriculture education, Heath taught ag in Palmersville, Tennessee, for several years, then moved on to manage the local farm co-op in Graves County. In 1985, he bought his oldest brother's barn and metal building business, which he still owns and operates.
Heath said he has always paid attention to politics, and when U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., ran for election in 2010, Heath got involved with the Paul campaign at the grassroots level. After Paul was elected, Heath told his wife of his desire to serve in public office and waited for the right opportunity. It wasn't long after that (December 2011) that District 2 Rep. Fred Nesler took a job with the Department of Agriculture under then-commissioner James Comer, and left his seat open.
Heath said that he saw Nesler's announcement in the newspaper and didn't sleep that night. He announced his candidacy in January of 2012, learned to campaign, and won the May primary and the general election in November. Heath ran for commissioner of agriculture in 2015 and was edged out by now-commissioner Ryan Quarles.
As the 2016 elections drew closer and the possibility of "flipping the House" to a Republican majority became very real, Heath GOP leadership know that he was interested in being a committee chairman. After election night when the dust settled and the realization that the Kentucky House was now under a Republican majority for the first time since 1921, leadership approached Heath about assuming the role of Agriculture Committee chairman, which he eagerly accepted.
Heath has jumped into his role, identifying bills from past years that need to be finalized through the ag committee. One, a trucking weight variance bill for livestock or poultry being transported from their point of origin to first market (in poultry, the processing plant), has been in the Senate for three years. Heath put this bill on the agenda for the House Ag Committee's first meeting, which was held on Feb. 8 and attended by about 30 representatives from the Kentucky Soybean Association.
"Poultry is Kentucky's No. 1 ag commodity, and having those producers able to get their birds from the houses to the processing plant is important," Heath said. The bill passed the House 81-13 on Feb. 10.
Another so-called "cleanup bill" on the agenda concerns divisible loads. Implement dealers deliver a number of pieces of equipment to farmers across the commonwealth each year, and the state police are interpreting the law to mean that dealers should be taking the dual wheels off tractors before delivering them.
"One business here in the state delivers over 600 units each year," Heath said. "The time and cost associated with taking those wheels off and then putting them back on when the equipment reaches its destination is prohibitive."
The divisible loads bill originated in the transportation committee, and Heath thinks it will fare better in the ag committee because of the base of understanding about farm equipment.
Heath said that there were several other issues on his plate -many that have been brought to him by Quarles, with whom he works closely - that he's not at liberty to discuss just yet.
"I look to groups like the Kentucky Soybean Association, the corn growers and small grain growers, Kentucky Farm Bureau, the cattlemen, pork producers and the poultry federation to make sure we are on the same page to do the best for Kentucky ag," Heath said. "Your groups have statewide membership, and your members are on the front lines. I need your input."
Kentucky Soybean Association Legislative Chairman Caleb Ragland said of Heath's appointment: "Iit's great to have someone who has actually walked in our boots in this position. Rep. Heath has real-life experience both on the farm and in agribusiness. We at the Kentucky Soybean Association look forward to an open-door relationship."
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