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Dave Olson and Wendy Reuer , Published June 10 2013

ND, Minnesota lawmakers praise passage of farm bill in Senate

WASHINGTON – North Dakota and Minnesota senators on Monday celebrated passage in the Senate of a new farm bill, saying it holds good things for both states.

The bill passed on a bipartisan 66-27 vote. The legislation, which costs almost $100 billion annually, also would eliminate subsidies that are paid to farmers whether or not they farm. All told, it would save about $2.4 billion a year on the farm and nutrition programs, including across-the-board cuts that took effect earlier this year.

Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said the bill would support 16 million American jobs, save taxpayers billions and put into place “the most significant reforms to agriculture programs in decades.” But it would still generously subsidize corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, rice, sugar and other major crops grown by U.S. farmers.

Area delegates were hopeful the House will follow suit and pass the farm bill, but it was far from clear whether that will happen.

“Good farm policy affects all Americans,” said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who added that the bill passed by the Senate eliminates direct payments to growers while enhancing crop insurance.

Sen. Al Franken, DFL-Minn., praised the bill for keeping the sugar program intact.

“I’m very glad that we were able to successfully defeat an attempt to gut the U.S. sugar program, which is vital to Minnesota’s economy and keeps jobs from being shipped overseas,” Franken said in a statement. “We need to protect American sugar and American jobs, and we did just that.”

Replacing direct payments with stronger crop insurance will save taxpayers $24 billion over 10 years, said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who added that she and Hoeven worked together on the Agriculture Committee to increase conservation dollars that can be used for retention of water, something she said will be very important for flood control efforts.

Both Klobuchar and Hoeven said the strong bipartisan support the farm bill received in the Senate should put pressure on the House to vote on and pass a bill.

“They (House members) will let it sit at their own peril, because we just can’t continue an old farm bill that’s outdated and costing us more,” Klobuchar said.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., agreed.

“The biggest concern we have now is getting the House to act,” she said.

“We have to absolutely make sure we don’t take an industry that is thriving today and because of inaction in Washington create uncertainty that would lead to problems,” added Heitkamp, who lauded the farm bill’s crop insurance provisions.

“We think the crop insurance program addresses North Dakota’s concerns and provides that safety net, not only for current farmers but hopefully for future farmers,” she said.

Also, Heitkamp said, the farm bill approved by the Senate fully funds alternative energy initiatives.

“We have a wonderful opportunity to continue the work we’ve started already on biofuels,” Heitkamp said.

While the Senate passed a farm bill last year, the House did not. That might change this year, according to Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., who has been working to get a farm bill to the House floor for a vote.

Peterson said House leaders seem more inclined to bring a farm bill to the floor this year, and he said the Senate’s bipartisan passage of a bill could inspire House members to do the same.

But, he said, opposition is expected from those who want deep cuts in what used to be called the food stamp program, as well as those who are against dairy program provisions.

Last year, the House declined to take up the legislation during an election year amid conflict over how much should be cut from the food stamp program, which now serves one in seven Americans and costs almost $80 billion last year. That cost has more than doubled since 2008.

The bill approved by the House Agriculture Committee last month would make much larger cuts to food stamps than the Senate version, in a bid to gain support from those House conservatives who have opposed the measure.

The Senate bill would cut the food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, by about $400 million a year, or half a percent. The House bill would cut the program by $2 billion a year, or a little more than 3 percent, and make it more difficult for some people to qualify.

North Dakota Rep. Kevin Cramer said he believes the reduction difference could be the main sticking point in the House.

“I would say it’s a viable bill. It needs a couple of improvements, but I’m confident the House will be able to (pass it),” Cramer, R-N.D., said.

Peterson said proposed cuts in the food stamp program are not deep enough to suit some Republicans and may be too deep for some Democrats.

“I’m not sure how many votes we’re going to get from the Democrats, or how many Republicans will be able to vote for it,” Peterson said, adding that if the bill doesn’t make it through the House, he would like to see the question at least put to a vote.

“Then, everybody can see who is causing it to fail,” he said.

Cramer said he believes the House may also be divided when it comes to the Senate bill’s take on crop insurance premiums and conservation requirements.

An amendment to reduce the government’s share of crop insurance premiums for farmers with adjusted gross incomes of more than $750,000 was passed in the Senate. Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said their amendment would affect about 20,000 farmers.

Some senators argued that the amendment would result in fewer people buying insurance and undercut a separate provision in the bill that would require farmers buying crop insurance to comply with certain environmental standards on their land.

Currently the government pays for an average 62 percent of crop insurance premiums and also subsidizes the companies that sell the insurance. The overall bill expands crop insurance for many crops and also creates a program to compensate farmers for smaller, or “shallow,” revenue losses before the paid insurance kicks in.

The crop insurance expansion is likely to benefit Midwestern corn and soybean farmers, who use crop insurance more than other farmers. The bill would also boost subsidies for Southern rice and peanut farmers, lowering the threshold for those farms to receive government help.

Critics said the bill would subsidize large corporate farms when farm country is in the middle of an economic boom. Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group that has long criticized farm subsidies, said the legislation would simply redirect subsidies and “needlessly cut nutrition and conservation programs designed to help the hungry and the environment.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Readers can reach Forum reporters Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555 and Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530