BUDGET WATCH: Federal budget will affect agriculture | TSLN.com

BUDGET WATCH: Federal budget will affect agriculture

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack could encounter more stumbling blocks with his proposed enhanced second beef checkoff and the sage grouse will be kept off the Endangered Species Act for a year under the Agriculture section of an omnibus appropriations bill approved in the house last week.

At print time the Senate had not yet taken up the bill but was expected to pass the same version the day this paper prints.

Agriculture's portion of the $1.1 trillion spending package amounts to about $20.6 billion in discretionary spending, $305 million below last year's enacted level, according to house appropriations committee chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky.

Of that, $6.6 billion will be used to fund Women, Infants and Children (WIC) food purchasing assistance. Outside of ag's budget, over $21 billion is set aside for child nutrition programs and $81.8 billion for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

As in the past, riders for everything from country of origin labeling to the Environmental Protection Agency's "waters of the U.S." were tacked on to the bill in hopes of forcing them through.

U.S. Cattlemen's Association president Danni Beer of Keldron, South Dakota, explained that most of the riders pertaining to agriculture are not actually binding, but could be thought of as guidance. The horse slaughter provision, GIPSA language and sage grouse provision are the only issues of those listed below that are actually directives, she said.

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"Directives are linked to funding. For example, no funding can be used on the GIPSA and horse processing provisions," she said. "The other topics simply encourage or instruct the agency to do something, but are not actually binding."

Country of origin labeling

The secretary of agriculture, in consultation with the U.S. Trade Representative, is directed to develop a report to address World Trade Organization rulings.

"I'm pleased the bill ultimately maintains our Country of Origin Labeling program and allows the WTO appeal to proceed despite fierce efforts by opponents to gut the program," said Senator Tim Johnson (D-S.D.).

Beer called the COOL language "troublesome," but added that she doesn't expect it to effect drastic changes to the current COOL law.

Actual rider language: "Within 15 days of final resolution, including all pending appeals, or May 1, 2015, whichever comes first…a report that contains the Secretary's recommendations for any changes in Federal law that would be required for the establishment and implementation of a country of origin labeling program with respect to beef, pork, and poultry that does not conflict with, or is in any manner inconsistent with, the trade obligations of the United States, taking into account the findings contained in the report of the compliance panel established by the Dispute Settlement Body of the World Trade Organization (WTO) for purposes of the WTO disputes"

Checkoff

The beef checkoff provision is in congressional "report" language, which can be thought of as guidance or an "advisory," but not law, said Sen. Johnson's agricultural aide, Josh Tonsager.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has requested comments via the federal register for a possible second beef checkoff. The directives or report language in the omnibus bill could prohibit him from further progress.

"The report essentially says USDA should not move forward with the checkoff process but I'm not sure how USDA will interpret that," said Tonsager.

Beer said the primary beef checkoff contractor, NCBA, struck a last-minute deal to attempt to stop the agriculture secretary from gathering information about a second beef checkoff. "You have a situation where cattle producers would like to have comments on how to enhance the checkoff and one of the things they care a lot about is addressing the governance in the program. They want to have representation or an ability to look at what representation could be, and they get shut down by the primary checkoff contractor."

Actual rider language: "There is concern that the Secretary has started a process for establishing a second beef checkoff program under the Commodity Promotion, Research, and Information Act of 1996. An overwhelming majority of cattle producers do not support paying assessments into two separate beef checkoff programs operating simultaneously. The Secretary is directed not to implement a second duplicative beef checkoff program."

Grain Inspection and Packers} and Stockyards Act

According to Beer, the bill contains language directing the continued restriction of funds to be used for GIPSA reform.

Sage grouse

The bill not only prohibits funding for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act, but also includes $15 million within the Bureau of Land Management budget for sage grouse conservation, continuing the efforts already underway to protect the species and its habitat; helping to prevent a future listing said a National Cattlemen's Beef Association news release.

"Upon passage by the senate this would provide a one year delay in any additional action regarding the sage grouse," said NCBA's communications director Chase Adams.

Federal land

The range/grazing management budgets for the BLM and U.S. Forest Service will both remain level with the Fiscal year 14 allocations, providing the necessary resources for the agencies to continue working through the backlog of National Environmental Policy Act analyses and respond to litigation pressure being brought by radical environmental groups. These allocations run contrary to the President's proposal to drastically reduce funding for the federal range programs, said the president of the Public Lands Council, Brenda Richards, Owyhee County, Idaho, in an e-mail statement.

Richards applauded the decision of the House not to include an arbitrary increase in the grazing fee that the President had included in his budget request again this year.

Waters of the U.S.

Congress addressed the Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers' "waters of the United States" proposal, requiring the agencies to withdraw the controversial interpretive rule that attempts to clarify farming and ranching exemptions under the Clean Water Act. While the bill does not block the proposal in its entirety, Richards said this is a step in the right direction.

Horse processing

The bill continues to prohibit funding for inspectors at horse processing plants, effectively halting horse processing in the United States.

School lunch programs

The bill says the agriculture secretary shall allow states to grant an exemption from the whole-grain requirements provided that the school food authorities demonstrate "hardship including financial hardship" in procuring specific whole grain products.

The bill also forbids USDA to use any salaries and expenses of personnel to reduce the quantity of sodium contained in federally reimbursed meals, foods and snacks below Target 1 levels until scientific research establishes that the reduction is beneficial for children.

"School lunch is an anti-hunger program," a congressional aide said, adding that "there are other ways to deal with obesity such as having physical education every day."

School lunch is supposed to "break even" and when students drop out of school meals, it "upsets the cost model," the aide said. Students rejecting meals made under the new rules is a bigger problem in rural areas than in urban areas because in urban areas children have other places they can go to eat, the aide said.

–The Hagstrom report contributed to this story.