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Sen. Max Baucus elaborates

Sen. Max Baucus elaborates while discussing recent legislation with members of The Billings Gazette's editorial board Thursday afternoon.

U.S. Sen. Max Baucus expects there will be a farm bill passed this year that will support Montana’s heavily agriculture-dependent economy.

One in five Montana jobs is related to agriculture, and the industry's more than $3 billion a year in sales buoys about half the state’s economic activity, Baucus said. The five-year, 2013 farm bill to be debated on the Senate floor next week is Baucus’ sixth. The Senate version of the bill cuts $23 billion from current federal spending on agriculture, conservation and food subsidies. A House version of the bill cuts more than $30 billion.

The bill is a year overdue. Senate lawmakers last year passed a 2012 farm bill, but a House version failed after Republican leaders balked at bringing it to the floor. A short-term bill, without taxpayer savings, was cobbled together in January to buy lawmakers more time.

“This one will be five years, which is an improvement over yearly extensions,” Baucus told The Gazette editorial board Thursday. “Congress in way too many instances has passed extensions of policy sometimes for a year, sometimes 18 months. People deserve more certainty, predictability so they can plan their businesses, their lives."

After the farm bill passes, Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, will focus on reforming the federal tax code, last overhauled in 1986.

The Senate is expected to finish its work on the farm bill possibly next week. The House is expected to take up its version of the bill in June, as well. Differences in the two bills will be worked out in conference committee, to which Baucus assumes he will be appointed.

Meantime, Montana’s 2.6 million cattle and calves head into a dry summer without federal livestock disaster assistance, which normally kicks in when animals are killed or grazing land is lost to drought or fire. Baucus created the program as chairman of the 2008 Senate Agriculture Committee, but the funding expired in 2011. Funding also wasn't included in the short-term bill crafted to fund farm policy through the end of the federal fiscal year in September. Montana cattle sales exceed $1.28 billion a year, according to the U.S. National Agriculture and Statistics Service.

The Senate version of the 2013 farm bill includes a Baucus amendment making livestock disaster assistance permanent and backfilling funding for the 2012 drought, in which 48 of Montana’s 56 counties were declared disasters.

Senate lawmakers have also turned back an attempt to weaken the federal sugar program, which supports U.S. sugar beet and cane farmers by regulating the amount of sugar imported to the United States by countries not allowed access by trade agreement. In Billings, Western Sugar Cooperative contributes $72 million a year to the local economy. Nationally, Montana ranks fifth for sugar production.

Most of the farm bill’s savings come from the elimination of direct government payments to farmers, which through this year provide annual payments to farmers regardless of whether they plant a crop. In turn, federally subsidized crop insurance is ratcheted up. The argument favoring crop insurance over direct payments is that crop insurance doesn't kick in every year.

Montana’s 2012 wheat sales exceeded $1.7 billion.

The Senate version of the farm bill also includes roughly $4 billion in cuts over 10 years nationally to nutrition programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps. The House cuts to SNAP exceed $20.5 billion. The difference will be reconciled in conference committee.



Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.