By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Montana farmers and ranchers have the opportunity to get some relief for crop losses in the last two years due to a bill that passed Congress this fall, U.S. Sen. Max Baucus said Thursday in Havre.
"Finally, we were able to get it passed and I'm really, really, tickled," Baucus told about 30 people in PJ's Restaurant.
Baucus met with constituents at the restaurant to talk about farm programs and to answer questions.
He said some lawmakers opposed the disaster relief for ag producers, particularly those from the East and from major cities, but with disaster aid going to hurricane victims in Florida and the Gulf Coast he wanted to see ag producers get their share.
"We've got our own kind of stealth disaster," Baucus said. "Heck, we need help too."
He responded to questions about rebuilding the St. Mary Diversion, the nearly 100-year-old system that supplies most of the water in the Milk River every year, with a positive note.
He said he and Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., and Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., intend to get the funding the state has requested for a study and a reserve repair fund passed by Congress this year.
"Our goal, after the election, is to get the $9.5 million enacted this year," he said.
He warned that while "often the squeaky wheel gets the grease," there will be other lawmakers "pitching for their own $9.5 million programs."
Kim Peterson, who farms and ranches north of Havre, asked about several issues, including the high cost of health care and the lower cost of prescription drugs and farm products in Canada, and about getting country-of-origin labeling required for agricultural products.
Peterson said that while the U.S. beef industry has been helped by limits placed on Canadian export of beef products because of a case of mad cow disease discovered in Alberta last year, when the border reopens the origin labeling should be in place.
Baucus said he and other lawmakers will continue to work on COOL, and on health care issues like reducing the cost of prescription medication.
He said setbacks in COOL have been frustrating. The Senate passed a bill phasing in mandatory labeling, then it was put back to voluntary labeling in a House and Senate conference committee.
"To be honest, we were just outgunned," he said. "We've just got to keep fighting."
Several people asked about finding ways to get prices for ag products increased.
Baucus said he wants to increase world trade, and reduce subsidies other governments offer their ag producers, to give U.S.-made ag products better prices. Subsidies like those in European Union countries allow those countries to undercut U.S. prices, and trade barriers prevent U.S. producers from selling in some parts of the world, he said.
"We're just doing all we can to open markets and decrease trade barriers," he said.
Wayne Thurston of Havre asked how the government can operate when it has a budget deficit.
Baucus said that is funded by selling U.S. Treasury bonds and notes, which are bought by a variety of groups including businesses, U.S. citizens and many foreign governments.
Thurston asked what would happen if people stopped buying those Treasury instruments.
"If they decide they don't want to buy any more Treasuries, we've got a problem," Baucus said.
Baucus talked about several different programs that were passed along with disaster aid.
The disaster aid allows farmers and ranchers who suffered 35 percent losses due to drought, flooding, freezing, hurricanes, and other natural disasters to receive help for either 2003 or 2004. The aid includes help for losses in livestock as well as crops.
Baucus said a manufacturing tax deduction now applies to agricultural products as well. Baucus added the provision to another bill, he said.
The deduction is part of a replacement for subsidies for manufactured products that are exported, Baucus said. The European Union a few years ago asked the World Trade Organization to rule that the previous U.S. system of subsidies was illegal, and the WTO agreed, Baucus said.
The Senate Finance Committee, on which Baucus is the senior Democrat, worked to revise the export subsidies and he included the ag production provision, he said.
Other provisions on the act include giving livestock producers four years to replace livestock sold due to drought instead of two years wtihout capital gains taxes being due, and eliminating alternative minum taxes reducing benefits of averaging income over four years.