By Tim Leeds
The farm bill passed by the U.S. Senate on Wednesday has both good and bad elements for Montana, the state's senators said.
U.S. Sen. Max Baucus voted for it and Sen. Conrad Burns voted against it.
One good part of the bill, spokesmen for both senators said, was the inclusion of $2.4 billion in disaster relief, an amendment proposed by Democrat Baucus and cosponsored by Republican Burns.
"That's why (Baucus) voted for the bill, although it still needs work," said Bill Lombardi of Baucus' staff. " He saw last summer how badly the Hi-Line is doing, the farmers and ranchers on the Hi-Line. He talked about that when he was on the Senate floor he's never seen it worse than that."
The relief includes $1.8 billion for the Crop Disaster Program and $500 million for the Livestock Assistance Program, with $12 million of that earmarked for the Native American Livestock Feed Program. Another $100 million was added to Baucus' amendment for market loss assistance for apples.
J.P. Donovan of Burns' office said that although Burns supported many parts of the bill, he had enough problems with other sections that he couldn't vote for it.
"He couldn't vote on it in good conscience," Donovan said. "He felt it was not a good bill for Montana."
Both Burns and Baucus hope to work on removing troubling parts of the bill when a House-Senate conference committee meets to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of the farm bill. Donovan said Burns will not be on the committee, but he thinks he will be able to influence the final form.
"He has some very good friends and colleagues on the committee," Donovan said. "He feels confident they know his position and can get his message through."
Baucus was not appointed to the committee, but Lombardi said he will be talking to participants about his concerns.
President Bush said the Senate version "doesn't get the job done" and also wants to change the bill during the joint committee's work. The White House says the bill uses up money set aside for agriculture too quickly. A congressional budget agreement set aside $73.5 billion in new agricultural spending in the next 10 years. The Senate farm bill increases spending by $45 billion over the next five years.
Bush also criticized the House version of the bill, passed last fall, which increases spending $38 billion over five years.
U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., said today the disaster relief in the Senate bill will be difficult to get through the House, but he will work to try to persuade his fellow representatives to keep it in.
"While maybe Texas didn't have a disaster, Montana did," Rehberg said. "We need the payments."
Rehberg is not part of the committee, but he said he is forming coalitions and will work through letters to committee members and on the floor of the House to represent Montana's needs.
One of Burn's concerns about the bill was an amendment sponsored by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. The amendment set the maximum federal payment to each farm at $275,000, while the bill passed by the House set a limit of $550,000. Donovan said Burns hopes to make the final amount higher.
Joplin farmer Larry Barbie, president of the Montana Grain Growers Association, said he also hopes the limit can be raised in committee.
"(Montana Grain Growers is) looking at it as a very negative," he said. "We don't support it as an organization."
Rehberg said he opposes the Grassley amendment and will work to remove it while the bill is before the conference committee.
Lombardi said Baucus voted against the Grassley amendment, and will try to have it removed as well. Baucus has sent a letter to the members of the committee that includes his concerns about that amendment and an amendment sponsored by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.
The Reid amendment ties some Conservation Reserve Program payments to federal acquisition of water rights from the ag producers to protect endangered, threatened and sensitive species. Donovan said Burns opposes the amendment.
"It's a slippery slope anytime the government gets involved in water rights," he said.
The "sensitive species" part of the amendment is a particular problem for Burns, Donovan said. The senator couldn't find anyone who could define what the description meant, which means the government could make its own definition, Donovan said.
Rehberg said he will fight the Reid amendment while the bill is in committee.
"That's just a killer," he said. "No one in agriculture could support that. It's just the wrong thing to do. Water is just too important to the land. You can't separate the water from the land."
The original version of the Reid amendment would have applied to all states, but the final version attached to the bill only affects seven states. Montana is excluded.
Burns tried to attach amendments to the bill that would have changed how CRP is administered, limiting the amount eligible for the program to 50 percent of a farm, and giving higher payments for more erodable land. Quality land is now being put into CRP that doesn't fit the program's original intent of preventing erosion, he said Sunday during the Lincoln Day Dinner in Havre.
Burns said what CRP is doing is removing money from the local economy instead of stopping erosion.
While Burns' amendments were not included in the bill, Donovan said today that the Senate is commissioning a study to determine the economic impact CRP has on communities.