Gazette opinion: Time to plow ahead on 5-year Farm Bill

2013-06-02T00:10:00Z Gazette opinion: Time to plow ahead on 5-year Farm Bill The Billings Gazette
June 02, 2013 12:10 am

If Congress was functioning properly, there would be no need to pass a farm bill this year. This major agriculture and nutrition policy legislation should have been updated and reauthorized for five years in 2012. But it wasn’t.

So federal livestock disaster relief expired before one of the worst droughts ever to hit southeastern Montana. Lawmakers passed a one-year extension that left out livestock disaster and left other ag producers with no time for planning ahead because federal policy would change again in 2013.

In recent years, the gnawing lack of certainty in congressional decision making has contributed immensely to wariness in the stock markets, in business development and in consumer spending.

In a visit this week to billings, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., predicted Congress will pass a farm bill this year.

“It’s going to be a five-year farm bill,” he said. “People deserve more certainty. It’ll be good for Montana, the stock growers, grain growers and organic folks.”

The Senate farm bill, which Baucus helped write as a member of the Agriculture Committee, would make livestock disaster aid a permanent part of the farm bill.

Protection of domestic sugar beet and sugar cane production is important to the Yellowstone Valley. The Senate committee farm bill would continue to keep foreign sugar from being dumped on the U.S. market, thanks to Baucus’ efforts.

Agriculture isn’t Montana’s only stake in the farm bill. While one in five Montana jobs is related to agriculture, one in eight Montanans gets some groceries from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the major nutrition program in the farm bill.

On SNAP reform, the “intent is to root out waste,” Baucus said. The bill he supported, which will be debated this week in the Senate, makes some changes to the low-income nutrition program that would reduce its costs.

“SNAP is important to Montana,” Baucus said last week.

The Senate committee farm bill won’t reduce SNAP benefits for Montanans, according to the state Department of Public Health and Human Services.

However, the farm bill that passed the House Agriculture Committee would eliminate or reduce food benefits for some low-income Montanans who live in publicly subsidized housing, according to DPHHS.

Additionally, the House committee bill would tighten restrictions on who can apply for SNAP. Under present law, Montana accepts SNAP applications from people whose gross income is up to 200 percent of poverty level. But they don’t receive any benefits unless their net income is under 130 percent of poverty — after deducting certain expenses such as child care for working parents or medical expenses for elderly and disabled individuals. For a one-person household, 130 percent of poverty is $14,997 annual income.

More than 40 states use some version of this gross income/net income option. If the House committee’s SNAP plan became law, Montana and other states could only take applications from people whose gross income was below 130 percent of poverty.

“At this time, it looks like we’re liking the Senate bill,” said Katherine Buckley, deputy administrator for Human and Community Services in Helena.

Baucus, who served on the farm bill conference committee six years ago, said it’s likely he will get that job again. Whether he’s a conferee or not, Baucus will need to keep plowing ahead to protect Montana interests. Ranching and farming issues vary across the nation. Most members of Congress don’t represent rural constituencies. Thus, Baucus and other ag state lawmakers have to make their regional needs known while enlightening urban lawmakers. A wholesome, homegrown food supply benefits all Americans. This great nation needs a good, five-year farm bill in 2013.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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