Farm Bill conference meeting

Tue, 29 Apr 2008 18:30:00 GMT

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E&E News:
With an agreement among key farm bill negotiators finally in hand, the conference committee is expected to make swift work this week on the reauthorization of the five-year bill overseeing agriculture, conservation, energy and nutrition programs.

The committee will hold a formal conference meeting this evening, where they are expected to approve a new framework for funding and offsets for the bill that key House-Senate negotiators from the tax and agriculture panels agreed to late Friday.

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The new framework for the bill includes a $4 billion boost above the current baseline for conservation programs and $10.3 billion in new spending on nutrition.

Crop subsidies and reductions to a proposed disaster relief program took the brunt of the spending cuts to offset the new spending, lawmakers said.

The framework also includes a pared-down version of the Senate’s tax package that would roll back tax cuts for corn-based ethanol and give new tax breaks for the cellulosic ethanol and timber industries.

The leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture committees reached the agreement Friday after several days of intense closed-door negotiations in the Capitol. Lawmakers still have to work out some details of the $300 billion, five-year measure, but they said they expect a swift resolution of the conference this week.

“There were some tough spots, but we were able to get by all of that,” House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) said after meetings Friday. “Any member can offer any amendment [in the conference committee], but I don’t see a need for any votes—I think we’ve got this so it won’t require any of that.”

The agreement still must reach approval of the conference committee and the full House and Senate, as well as the White House. President Bush has held a hard line with the farm bill, threatening to veto it unless it reforms crop subsidies and avoid tax increases.

Bush administration officials were not present for the negotiations last week. A White House spokesman said they are reserving judgment until they can review the entire package.

“As we’ve said in the past, the president believes that a new farm bill should include important reforms, not raise taxes and be fiscally responsible,” said White House spokesman Scott Stanzel.

The leaders of the House and Senate tax panel agreed to rely on customs-users fees to offset much of the $10 billion in new spending for the bill. The fees, most of which would come from importers, do not classify as a tax and have not raised a red flag with the White House.

But other advocates for overhauling the farm bill are hopeful the White House will continue to press for more changes to the measure. Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) said he hopes Bush “will stand firm in his commitment to a better bill.” Kind is one of the leaders of a group of House members pushing to throw out much of the current subsidy program.

“Negotiators managed to avoid every opportunity to reform wasteful, outdated subsidies while piling on additional layers of unnecessary spending,” said Kind. “It looks as though nothing has been done to address the waste and abuse that has been well documented over the last year.” No limits for farmers

One of the outstanding issues for the bill is limitations on crop subsidies—a controversial area where reformers like Kind would like to see more change.

Lawmakers said they are still working out a deal on income limits for crop subsidy recipients. Peterson said it would likely lower the cap for people who make most of their income off the farm, but have no limitation for on-farm income.

“The people who are going to take a big hit in the bill are non-farmers,” said Peterson.

Advocates for farm bill reform want to place more stringent limits on how much money landowners can receive in federal subsidies—regardless of where their income comes from.

The Bush administration proposed barring anyone who makes more than $200,000 per year from farm supports.

The Senate’s version of the farm bill, approved in December, would stop payments to non-farmers who make more than $750,000 a year. It had no income caps for farmers. The House bill would cut off farm payments for millionaire farmers or non-farmers who make more than $500,000. Both prompted veto threats from Bush. Corn gives way to cellulosic subsidies

The agreement also includes a package of tax incentives that totals close to $1.5 billion, according to members of the Finance Committee.

The package includes extensions and reductions of the ethanol tax credits and tariffs, said Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa). The move is a step toward gradually transitioning the corn-ethanol industry to standing on its own. The package instead favors supports for cellulosic ethanol.

“It is a signal we are ready to shift to other less disruptive forms of ethanol production,” Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said of the package.

Corn-ethanol subsidies would see an almost 12 percent hit. The current 51-cent-a-gallon tax credit for corn-based ethanol would drop to 45 cents. In conjunction with that, it would also reduce the tariff on imported ethanol, Grassley said.

The winner in the tax package is cellulosic ethanol—made from corn stalks, woody plants or grasses. It would get a $1-per-gallon subsidy.

The move marks a significant shift for the farm-state lawmakers, who have been some of the biggest advocates for ethanol supports, and the booming grain and refinery industries that have come with them.

“This is a signal to the country that we’re starting to move away from corn to cellulose,” Peterson said. Sodsaver exemptions

The agreement includes protections for virgin prairie, long-sought from environmental groups, but has loopholes to allow some states to ignore them.

Conservation advocates have been pushing for years for a sodsaver program to bar federal subsidies for farmers who plow up native prairie.

The Senate sodsaver language, favored by conservation groups, would block crop insurance and disaster payments for farmers who plant on native prairie. The House bill limits the crop insurance ineligibility to four years.

The conference agreement has an “amalgam” of the House and Senate sodsaver provisions, Senate Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said Friday. All of the prairie pothole states would have to comply, but Montana and North Dakota would only opt in at their governors’ discretion.

Sodsaver is intended to address what conservation groups say is a backward system in current farm policy. The 2002 farm bill offers landowners conservation payments to conserve grasslands, but also gives crop insurance and crop subsidies that encourage plowing them up.

The Government Accountability Office issued a report this fall calling federal subsidies an “important factor” in encouraging the conversion of millions of acres of grasslands to row crops. The United States lost almost 25 million acres of privately owned grasslands between 1982 and 2003, GAO said. Conservation

The $4 billion increase for conservation trails the numbers negotiators had previously discussed, but still would give a significant boost to most farmland conservation programs.

Much of the conservation money would go to restore funding for programs that would otherwise expire under current law. The expiring Wetlands Reserve Program would get $1.3 billion above the 10-year baseline and the Grasslands Reserve Program would get $300 million.

The framework shifts almost $2.5 billion from the Conservation Reserve Program to other conservation programs—cutting down the Agriculture Department’s largest conservation program but infusing other working-lands programs with some of the money in its budget.

Lawmakers said it lowers the acreage cap for CRP to more closely reflect the reality of the program, which pays farmers to idle land.

The framework allots for 32 million acres in CRP. That total is less than the current limit of 39 million acres but still more land than most USDA officials expect to see in the program in the next several years. Enticed by high commodity prices, farmers have been taking some land out of the program, and USDA has held off on new open enrollments.

Other conservation programs would see a boost under the framework. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program would see a $2.4 billion increase over baseline levels, the Conservation Stewardship Program gets $1.1 billion, and the Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program gets $560 million. A new program for the Chesapeake Bay comes in at $372 million.


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