California's state auditor has issued a scathing report criticizing the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) for inefficient processes responsible for growing delays in registering new products. The audit came a day after the Legislature passed a bill to increase the sales tax on pesticides to protect the department’s budget from insolvency.

The audit attributed the lengthy and variable processing times to insufficient staffing and inefficient processes, along with the lack of a formal process to determine those needs. The office found that DPR takes an average of 3.5 years to process registrations on new active ingredients and uses, twice as long as it took just four years earlier.

“Although DPR asserts that the existing regulatory standards for the length of its data evaluations are outdated, it has not taken steps to substantively update them since 1989, even though it is required to review its regulations every five years,” wrote State Auditor Grant Parks in a letter Tuesday to the administration and legislative leaders.“Long application processing times can delay the medical, agricultural and other benefits that pesticide products provide, and it can reduce revenue for businesses providing those products.”

The delays can affect registrants seeking to sell their products and levy a financial hit to DPR through lost revenues, since assessments are not collected on pending products.

The auditor raised alarms over DPR’s reliance on a paper-based system involving 24 disparate data systems, determining it is responsible for significant inefficiencies. DPR plans to launch in August an integrated digital system, known as CalPEST, which has further drained its limited resources. Its central funding account has dropped more than $7 million in the last five years while revenues have increased.

The downward spiral has driven the department to push in recent years for a dramatic bump in fees. In the most recent fiscal year, DPR had a budget of $132 million, supporting 450 positions.

In 2015 DPR announced its plan for CalPEST with a goal of implementing it by June 2017, but it extended the schedule three time as it struggled to select a contractor. Multiple vendor proposals failed to meet DPR’s procurement requirements, according to the auditor.

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The report recommends DPR establish “valid and measurable standards” for the time it should take to process applications and to report on its progress annually. Those concerns were reflected in Assembly Bill 2113, a measure that would approve the administration’s fee increase with legislative oversight and a set of guardrails requested by industry and environmental advocates.

The administration’s initial proposal would have enabled DPR to enact additional increases in four years. AB 2113, however, would cap such increases, unless DPR returns to the Capitol for approval.

The bill would require DPR to register new products within two years and to publicly share its progress. Farm groups have worked closely with the author, Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella, as well as the administration and legislative leaders to refine the bill.

The measure gained bipartisan support and swiftly advanced through committee hearings and floor votes.

In a statement to Agri-Pulse, DPR noted the auditor supported the changes underway to address the deficiencies.

"We are committed to streamlining and modernizing our pesticide evaluation and registration process to accelerate the availability of safe, effective alternatives and the systemwide adoption of sustainable pest management in California," said a DPR spokesperson. "We remain committed to continuing to evaluate and improve our work to protect public health and the environment and to support a stable, healthy food supply."

He pointed to "significant resources" in the budget signed this week to improve registration processes and support alternatives to certain conventional pesticides.

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