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Ag committees seek boost to conservation programs

Agriculture.com Staff 05/24/2007 @ 4:32pm

The chairmen of the House and Senate agriculture committees both indicated a desire Thursday to increase spending on conservation programs in the next Farm Bill, although they're taking approaches that differ significantly. And, they both suggested that there will be no additional funds for commodity programs.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) announced plans to integrate three existing conservation programs into one that he calls the Comprehensive Stewardship Incentives Program or CSIP.

"I intend to use the new farm bill to strengthen conservation on America's farms and ranches," Harkin said.

Harkin proposes combining today's conservation security program (CSP), environmental quality incentives program (EQIP) and wildlife habitat incentives program (WHIP) into the new CSIP and simplifying the signup process. He wants to spend $6 billion in new conservation funds above the budget projections, or baseline, for the next farm bill's five years. About $3 billion of that would pay for CSIP, allowing the CSP portion of today's farm bill to become a national program, not one limited to a few watersheds in each state.

POPULAR WITH FARMERS

Harkin said he believes the CSP program is popular with farmers and pointed out that Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns has told him that support for CSP came up consistently at farm policy listening sessions held by the USDA around the country.

Under current budgeting rules in Congress that require expanded programs to be offset with cuts in other programs or new revenue to the federal government, Harkin has to find money to pay for his new ideas for conservation.

He told reporters that he's optimistic that other members of the Senate will help him come up with the funds. Eight members of his committee are also on the Senate Finance Committee, which is responsible for tax legislation.

"I would think they'd want to be very helpful," Harkin said, adding that he knows the chairman of that committee, Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) has his staff looking for possible sources of new money for the farm bill.

The House Agriculture Committee is already considering the conservation title of the next farm bill and, so far, it expands spending on EQIP, partly by freezing any new enrollments in the conservation security program until the end of the farm bill in 2012.

Peterson told reporters Thursday he may have been too cautious about potential funds for conservation. He said he met with the leadership of the House yesterday and that he believes some money might be available for conservation from legislation already passed by the House that would roll back tax breaks for oil companies that were included in the 2005 Energy Bill. (The Senate has not passed similar legislation.)

If Peterson gets extra funds, there might also be money to continue the CSP, he said, after taking time to revise the rules for the program.

"A year or two delay in signup would allow changes to be made," Peterson said.

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