Havre Daily News - News you can use

By Alex Ross 

Gianforte says smart investment needed in rural America

 

February 20, 2018

Courtesy photo

Greg Gianforte

The St. Mary's Diversion should be part of President Donald Trump's proposed push to rebuild rural infrastructure, but done with responsible management of taxpayer dollars in mind U.S.

Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., said Tuesday during a roundtable discussion with area agriculture producers at Havre Inn and Suites.

"The president is talking about spending on rural infrastructure. I would put the St. Mary's at the top of the list in terms of the needs of rural Montana, but we have to be careful how we spec these projects in terms of taxpayer money" he said.

Earlier this month Trump released a plan to direct $200 billion in federal funds to spur upgrades to the nation's infrastructure.

An outline of the plan on the White House website says $50 billion of that would go toward a new Rural Infrastructure Program.

State, local and tribal governments would invest in the effort, along with the private sector.

Kim Peterson, a Montana Stock Growers Association board member, said that the St. Mary's Diversion, authorized in 1902, was something he was concerned about.

The St. Mary is a 29-mile system of dams, dikes and siphons that transfers water from the St. Mary River into the Milk River. The system provides water for irrigators and communities including Havre, Chinook and Harlem.

"It just seems like if that don't get handled, if that went down, the whole Milk River Valley would be shut down," Peterson said.

Peterson added that a few months ago he heard about the federal government allocating what he said was about $50 million to combat chronic wasting disease. If the federal government can do that, why can't money be found to fix the St. Mary, he said.

Gianforte said that he has been to a recently constructed water treatment plant in Chinook and understands how important St. Mary is for communities such as Havre.

"I understand that without that project the Milk River would go dry six out of 10 years in the summer time," he said.

"It wouldn't even flow six out of 10 months," Peterson said.

The project is necessary, but Gianforte said taxpayer dollars need to be used efficiently in doing it.

The challenge, Gianforte said, comes whenever the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers gets involved with a project, they always over design solutions that end up costing hundreds of million of dollars.

He said that as he has spoken with people involved with the St. Mary project, he has found there are some engineering proposals that would keep the system functioning for another 50 years that would cost less than $20 million.

"And that is a lot easier to fund," Gianforte said.

The issue of overdosing projects is one he said that he has raised with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

He said that he hears similar complaints from county commissioners across the state, that federal involvement often causes the price tag on road projects to soar.

Peterson said that a bridge north of Fresno is another concern of his.

"It's in really tough shape and it is going to fall in one of these days," he said.

The bridge, Peterson said, would likely be a smaller project but might be able to be put in an infrastructure bill.

The bridge, he said, he thinks is owned by the Bureau of Reclamation.

Upgrades to the bridge, he said, may not cost that much

Gianforte said his office has been able to advocate for smaller projects pretty effectively.

When there are federal issues and a federal agency may not be doing the right thing or prioritizing the way it makes sense from the local level, Gianforte said, that is when they get inquiries, particularly from county commissioners, and he can go advocate on their behalf.

Gianforte said although there is money in the budget for such small projects, they have to know that agencies like the Bureau of Reclamation are aware of them.

If the county commissioners, he said, can write a letter saying that it is a priority, explain the impact on Montana, the consequences of in action and what they want done, he is happy to advocate for it.

"I can't guarantee the outcome, but we will go to bat on it," he said.

Andrew Brekke of Erickson Insurance said members of Congress in both the U.S. House and Senate have for decades tried to means test federal crop insurance subsidies and based them on income, and is something he would caution against.

Although such means testing, he said, is politically popular with people who are not in agriculture or are from non-farm states, doing so would undermine the program by pushing out larger producers who help sustain the program.

"If you lose the 10 or 15 percent at the top, those are the people that pay the bulk of the money at higher levels," he said.

Most of his clients, Brekke said, are not large companies, but smaller agriculture operations that are corporations either for tax purposes or for reasons related to agriculture policy.

Nonetheless, he said, the subsidies for the smaller agriculture operations are handled the same as for larger corporations.

"That is the reality of it, their subsidies are treated the same way," Brekke said.

The Risk Management Agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture should offer more and better coverage options under the crop insurance program for crops not traditionally grown in Montana, but that are growing in popularity, Brekke said.

Such crops he said include mustard seed, soybeans and corn.

Congress is starting work on a new Farm Bill and based on conversations he has had with House Agriculture Committee Chair Mike Conaway, R-Texas, Gianforte said, a bill should be brought to committee within the next 60 days.

Gianforte said that since November he has gathered input from Montana producers that has been provided to the committee to ensure Montana has its fingerprints on the bill.

When it comes to the Farm Bill, legislation that funds a variety of farm and nutrition assistance programs, the first rule for Congress should be to do no harm.

"We should always approach the Farm Bill from that perspective," Brekke said.

Brekke said that, oftentimes, lawmakers from non-farm states only look at the portion of the bill that funds nutrition programs such as school lunches and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP, but not the farm policy side of the bill.

Jillien Striet of Stricks Ag in Chester said that though it is fine for industry, but the Food Modernization Act could adversely affect producers.

"If it goes down to the producer level it could be crippling," she said.

The website of the Food and Drug Administration says that the act was signed into law in 2011 and is meant to prevent contamination of food.

She said that producers already have a lot of paperwork to do, and adding more could be crippling.

Streit said the federal government should keep the regulations away from the production side of agriculture.

 

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