Drought package funding stalled appropriations bill


WASHINGTON – U.S. farmers hit by weather-related disasters in 2001 or 2002 will get a little relief in the $3 billion farm disaster assistance package that nearly derailed the massive omnibus appropriations bill finalized last week.

President Bush signed the bill into law Feb. 20, ending the stop-gap measures that were in place for nearly five months into the current fiscal year.

Funding impasse. In the final hours of Congressional negotiations, the disaster package stalled agreement on the overall $396 billion spending bill.

One of the key sticking points was how to fund the disaster program.

The White House and House Republican leaders insisted any new farm spending be paid for out of cuts in other programs.

Congressional negotiators finally agreed to take the $3.1 billion out of future allocations for the new Conservation Security Program, created just a year ago in the 2002 farm bill.

The Conservation Security Program would pay farmers for following specific land and water conservation practices.

The program, originally estimated to draw $7.7 billion in participation funds, would be limited to $3.7 billion over a 10-year period, published reports say.

Six-year trend. This is the sixth consecutive year Congress has passed some form of ad hoc emergency farm assistance. It is the first time, however, that the package cost is offset by future cuts and thus doesn’t increase the baseline amount of federal farm funding.

Disaster assistance. The disaster assistance requires producers to sign up to receive program benefits through local Farm Service Agency offices.

Disaster assistance benefits are available for all producers, commodity, and specialty crops, if the producer sustained losses of 35 percent or more in 2001 or 2002.

It will provide help according to the amount lost, up to $90/acre for an average corn farm; $60/acre for soybeans; $40 acre for wheat.

It is a modified crop disaster formula of 65/50 for insured and 65/45 for noninsured.

The program also broadens the Livestock Compensation Program eligibility.

No signup date set. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said it’s too early for USDA to determine when signup for the various disaster assistance programs will be available.

A disaster assistance group has been created to look at program requirements and timetables.

Veneman said the USDA would create a Web site this week for producers that will contain information on the program. A web address was not given, but when launched, the site can be accessed through www.usda.gov.

Mixed reactions. Farm groups had mixed reactions to the final program – pleased that assistance was available, but critical that funding came from future conservation program appropriations.

“Disaster aid is long overdue,” said American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman.

“About 90 percent of the counties in this country were declared a disaster in 2002 and more than 40 percent were so designated in both 2001 and 2002.”

But the Farm Bureau leader said he had “grave concerns” about the disaster package being funded from money for future farm bill spending.

“It is an unfortunate precedent that could undermine important programs,” Stallman said. “This farm bill was not designed to respond to weather disasters.”

Keith Dittrich, president of the American Corn Growers Association, also expressed his organization’s concerns with the measure, calling it “inadequate, inequitable, and insensitive, but still a major win for farmers.”

‘Inequitable and insensitive.’ Dittrich said the bill is inequitable because it fails to address the needs of producers who had losses in both 2001 and 2002.

“If producers were dealt the unfortunate situation of having back-to-back crop failures, they should be afforded assistance for both years.”

The bill is insensitive because it will require cuts in other agriculture programs to offset the costs of the emergency assistance, said Dittrich.

“This nation doesn’t do this with other disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes. Why should we do it to hard-pressed farm families?

“Congress will be taking money out of farmer’s left pocket to put it in their right while telling us what a wonderful thing they have done for us.”

Likewise, National Farmers Union President Dave Frederickson voiced criticism with the funding decision.

“This unprecedented move gives aid to farmers and ranchers by cutting farm bill spending,” Frederickson said.

“It’s like taxing hurricane victims to provide federal assistance to help repair their homes. It’s not a common-sense approach.”

In his statement after signing the bill, President Bush said, “The bill includes $3.3 billion in unrequested drought and other assistance, which is only minimally offset by real reductions in existing farm spending.

“Ninety-five percent of purported savings are scheduled to come several years from now, after the expiration of today’s farm bill, and may prove illusory.”        

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