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Senate passes farm bill by 86-11 vote

By Alan Bjerga • Updated Jun 29, 2018 at 12:22 AM

WASHINGTON — The Senate passed bipartisan farm legislation that sets up a clash with the House and President Donald Trump over imposing broad new work requirements for food stamp recipients.

The Senate bill, passed 86-11 Thursday, would renew subsidies for farmers and crop insurance companies, along with food aid for low-income families. The Senate bill doesn’t include the work rules. The House version would make work requirements stricter and would shift some food stamp benefits to job-training programs — changes critics say are designed to throw needy Americans off the rolls.

The House and Senate versions of the five-year, $867 billion legislation will need to be reconciled. Trump backs the work rules in the House plan, which was passed 213-211 last week without any Democratic votes.

Lawmakers are under pressure to act before current farm programs begin to expire on Sept. 30. The farm legislation is a traditional vehicle for modifying the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps.

Republicans said the work requirements are needed to move food stamp recipients into the labor force at a time of worker shortages. Democrats rejected those provisions because they said they’ll reduce benefits and increase paperwork without effectively moving people into jobs.

The Senate plan boosts funding for pilot programs that study the effectiveness of job training for food-stamp recipients, but doesn’t change work rules nationwide. The House version changes eligibility rules for food stamps.

Senators voted not to take up a proposed amendment that would have created work rules similar to those in the House legislation. The Senate bill’s supporters said they were concerned the provision would doom passage, a priority for vulnerable farm-state lawmakers from both parties.

“It’s not the best possible bill, it’s the best bill possible,” given the partisan divide in the Senate, said Senator Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican and chairman of the Agriculture Committee.

The Senate’s farm bill lowers the adjusted gross income threshold at which farmers are no longer eligible for farm subsidies to $700,000 from $900,000. In addition, it would increase funding for U.S. Department of Agriculture trade-promotion initiatives. Funding for trade programs is of heightened concern to farm groups as Trump threatens to impose new tariffs against major U.S. agricultural buyers such as Canada, Mexico and China.

The Senate bill also would boost acreage in the Conservation Reserve Program, the biggest USDA land-idling program, to 25 million acres from 24 million. The House bill raises the cap to 29 million. Under the program, farmers agree to halt production on environmentally sensitive land in exchange for an annual payment.

The proposal would also legalize hemp production by removing the marijuana relative from the federal list of controlled substances. That initiative is a pet project of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, whose state would be poised to become a leading grower of legal hemp.

Both of Ohio’s senators voted in favor of the bill and offered commentary afterward.

“Agriculture is one of Ohio’s most important industries, contributing more than $100 billion to our economy and putting food on the table not only for thousands of Ohio workers, but people around the world,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said. “This Farm Bill will help provide Ohio’s farmers with the certainty and predictability that they deserve and it will promote economic development and more jobs in our rural communities. I’m pleased the Senate passed two of my amendments to promote rural broadband services and ensure that Central State University in Wilberforce has access to federal funding under the Farm Bill like other 1890 land-grant institutions.

“This farm bill reauthorizes several programs to expand broadband access and improve infrastructure in our rural communities,” Portman continued. “Improving access to broadband, upgrading water infrastructure, and implementing cost-effective energy efficiency measures are important priorities of mine, and this bill will help create jobs and spur economic development in rural communities throughout Ohio. The bill also helps keep Lake Erie clean and our drinking water safe by maintaining funding for conservation programs, which help farmers implement best management practices on their farms and reduce nutrient runoff into waters like Lake Erie. Finally, this bill prioritizes funding for addiction treatment for rural areas, another important step forward in our effort to help combat the opioid crisis facing our country. I am proud to stand with Ohio’s farmers and will continue my work to support them and our agriculture industry.”

“Ohio farmers have a strong advocate in Senator Rob Portman,” said Frank Burkett III, president of the Ohio Farm Bureau. “We appreciate Rob’s support for conservation programs and other Ohio Farm Bureau priorities in the farm bill, his leadership on regulatory reform efforts, and his service to our state and agriculture community.”

As part of the farm bill, the Senate passed two amendments offered by Portman, including:

• An amendment by Portman and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) to ensure that Central State University in Wilberforce, can access funding under the Farm Bill that is available for 1890 land-grant institutions. Central State University is currently unable to receive the same level of federal funding as other historically black colleges, and this amendment would ensure that all 1890 land-grant intuitions are treated equal.

• An amendment by Portman and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) to promote rural community economic development, innovation, and broadband integration. Specifically, the Portman-Cortez Masto amendment would codify the Council on Rural Community Innovation to help promote policies that use technological innovation to resolve challenges related to health care, law enforcement, housing, and telecommunications. The amendment would also establish a Rural Broadband Integrated Working Group within the Council to identify regulatory barriers to broadband deployment, encourage public private partnerships, and support competition.

Brown, meanwhile, is the first Ohioan to serve on the Senate Agriculture Committee in more than 40 years.

In his press release announcing passage of the bill, Brown said his provisions included language to better support Ohio farmers, protect Lake Erie, spur economic development in rural Ohio, and feed hungry families.

Brown said he secured these priorities after hearing from Ohio farmers, small businesses, and sportsmen during a series of roundtable discussions he hosted throughout the state. The House passed its version of the farm bill last week, and Brown said he will continue fighting to make sure Ohio priorities are included in the final bill.

According to a 2017 Ohio State University report on the “Economic Contribution of Agricultural and Food Production to the Ohio Economy,” Ohio’s agricultural and food production sector accounts for $1 in every $13 of the state’s GSP, and one in eight jobs in Ohio.

“This bill is big win for Ohio, and it’s the product of a long, bipartisan process, working with Ohio farmers and communities over the past year,” Brown said. “The Senate farm bill is good for farmers, good for families, good for taxpayers, good for jobs, and good for Lake Erie. I will continue pushing Congress to make sure the final bill is good for Ohio.”

Burkett, the Ohio Farm Bureau president, also praised Brown.

“Ohio has been fortunate to have Senator Sherrod Brown providing leadership to move a farm bill forward via his work on the Senate Agriculture Committee,” Burkett said. “At a time of great uncertainty in the farm economy, it is great to have leaders who recognize the challenges while working to provide solutions.”

There are several key provisions in the bipartisan Senate Farm Bill that Brown introduced and fought to secure, including:

• Brown’s Local Food and Regional Market Supply (FARMS) Act, which would help farmers sell their products directly to consumers, create rural jobs, and invest in local and regional food economies.

• Provisions from Brown’s water quality improvement bill, the Give Our Resources the Opportunity to Work (GROW) Act, which will improve water quality in Lake Erie and across Ohio by refocusing federal investments to improve water quality and soil health. These efforts will improve federal conservation programs and better support Ohio farmers by reforming the three largest conservation funding programs to protect waterways while expanding access to quality farmland.

• Provisions that would make improvements to dairy programs in order to better target support for small- and medium-sized producers. The Farm Bill replaces the Margin Protection Program (MPP) with the Dairy Risk Coverage program, which invests an additional $100 million to improve affordability, flexibility, and effectiveness for Ohio dairy farmers.

• Provisions that protect the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for hungry families in Ohio. Brown pushed to help protect families in need by helping avoid harmful eligibility changes that would force working families to jump through unnecessary bureaucratic hoops.

• Language to close existing loopholes ensuring farm payments go to working farmers, not wealthy investors or speculators on Wall Street. Brown worked with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) to save taxpayer money and support farmers by ensuring a strong safety net program for years to come.

• When it comes to Central State, Brown said he and Portman secured an amendment that would increase the amount of formula funding that  will be able to receive from USDA, while not jeopardizing the funding of any other schools.

Brown and his staff held a series of roundtables throughout Ohio to get input from Ohio farmers and stakeholders as he helped write the 2018 farm bill.

In 2014, Brown was part of the Senate Farm Bill Conference Committee that successfully negotiated a five-year farm bill.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Norwalk Reflector contributed to this article.

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