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Published August 10, 2010, 08:34 AM

Lincoln’s disaster aid pledge hits snag

VAIL, Colo. — Agriculture Undersecretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services Jim Miller said Aug. 2 at the American Sugar Alliance meeting in Vail, Colo., that he is working with the White House and with Senate Agriculture Chairman Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., to figure out how the Obama administration can fulfill a promise to Lincoln that USDA could provide $1.15 billion in disaster aid for farmers in Arkansas and other places without new legislation.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

VAIL, Colo. — Agriculture Undersecretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services Jim Miller said Aug. 2 at the American Sugar Alliance meeting in Vail, Colo., that he is working with the White House and with Senate Agriculture Chairman Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., to figure out how the Obama administration can fulfill a promise to Lincoln that USDA could provide $1.15 billion in disaster aid for farmers in Arkansas and other places without new legislation.

Lincoln, who faces a tough re-election race against Rep. John Boozman, R-Ark., had insisted that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., include her disaster aid measure in the small business bill that that Reid was trying to push through the Senate, but she says White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel had promised to deliver the aid “administratively.” Lincoln withdrew her bill and said Emanuel promised the Obama administration would have a plan ready in two weeks.

Southern troubles

Miller said that he is “in process of conversation with the White House to gain a further elaboration” of what was promised to Lincoln and also is “in conversation with Lincoln in order to have a better (understanding) of what her interest was.”

Lincoln’s bill promised aid to crop farmers who had experienced a 5 percent loss in 2009 as well as aid to livestock, poultry and chicken producers in the Southeast and to Hawaiian sugar farmers.

Miller said that there is a mistaken impression that USDA’s Commodity Credit Corp., a line of credit at the Treasury to make farm subsidy and other mandatory program payments, “can do anything.” Miller said that, while he will explore CCC authorities, he also will examine the potential for using what’s known as Section 32, a tariff law provision that gives USDA the right to use certain tariff receipts to help out farmers in distress. Section 32 often is used to take surplus products off the market, but has been used for disaster aid in the past.

House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said he does not think USDA has the authority to provide the aid that Lincoln had included in her bill.

“My staff tells me there is no way they can do this administratively. I don’t know what the heck Rahm was talking about. I’d be surprised if anything comes of it,” Peterson said.

Northern program

Peterson said that the Southern farmers needed special help because the permanent disaster program known as SURE that was created in the 2008 farm bill was written by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., Senate Budget Commitee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., and Miller, who was a top aide to Conrad on the budget committee, to benefit the Northern Plains.

“Maybe we made it too much tailored to our part of the world,” said Peterson, who represents a Minnesota district that borders North Dakota. “We have to make it work for the whole country.”

Conrad told the sugar growers that Peterson “is entirely right” that the disaster program needs to be modified so that it works in the South. Conrad noted that the South had experienced “some tough disaster conditions” before USDA finished the rules for the program and said it is too early to judge the program’s performance in the Southern states. But he added that Congress needs “to tweak it so the program works seamlessly from one part of the country to another.”

Miller said the SURE program is not working in the South as it requires farmers to buy crop insurance at a higher level to qualify for disaster benefits and Southern farmers do not buy as much crop insurance as northern farmers do. In addition, rice farmers in Arkansas were asking for help with unexpectedly high production costs, and SURE does not cover that. Miller agreed that Congress should consider making the program more national in the 2012 farm bill, but he also noted that SURE is one of the programs whose baseline will expire before the new bill is written.

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