Kentucky Politics

Republican Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles says he expects a smooth transition as he takes over an agriculture agency previously housed in Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s office. The agency manages millions of dollars in grants and loans intended to help farmers and businesses every year.

The GOP-led legislature moved the Office of Agriculture Policy out of Beshear’s administration and into Quarles’ Department of Agriculture during this year’s lawmaking session—one of several measures shifting duties out of the governor’s office and into state offices currently controlled by Republicans.

During a legislative meeting on Tuesday, Quarles said he’s still “kicking the tires and checking the oil” of the office and looking for ways to improve operations during the transition period.

“We are committed from day one to have a smooth transition with no disruption in services of both the ag development board and its sister organization, the ag finance corporation,” Quarles said.

Serving in his second four-year term, Quarles has been mentioned as a possible candidate for governor in 2023 and has been a vocal critic of Beshear throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

Beshear vetoed the bill authorizing Quarles’ takeover of the Kentucky Office of Agriculture Policy—previously called the Governor’s Office of Agriculture Policy—but the legislature easily overrode him.

The legislature also overrode Beshear’s vetoes of bills removing the governor’s ability to appoint all 13 members to the State Board of Agriculture and limiting his control over the State Fair Board—a measure Beshear is challenging in court.

The Office of Agriculture Policy administers agriculture diversification grants funded by Kentucky’s share of the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement—the multistate legal settlement with cigarette companies signed in 1998.

Kentucky receives more than $100 million in tobacco settlement payments every year. Half of the funds are dedicated to programs like childhood development and tobacco cessation and half goes to agriculture diversification grants managed by the Office of Agriculture Policy.

Last week, Quarles replaced Beshear’s executive director of the agency, former Democratic state Sen. Dorsey Ridley, with Brian Lacefield, state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency during the Trump administration.

Lacefield said the new version of the office would create “synergies” between agriculture development and staff already working around the state.

“When you think about our marketing staff, and when you think about our pesticide inspectors and gas pump inspectors, etc., at KDA that network, about 85 to 90 of our staff are out in the field,” Lacefield said.

Though Beshear is challenging the bill limiting his control over the State Fair Board, he has not filed a lawsuit to try and keep the Office of Agriculture Policy in his administration.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.