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Farm bill in works, still difficult

DANIEL LOOKER 04/08/2013 @ 11:00pm Business Editor

Leaders of congressional ag committees from both parties seem optimistic that there will be a farm bill this year, but tough negotiating remains, especially if committees have to trim spending even more than they did when putting together bills in 2012.

That's the view the shared Tuesday with members of North American Agricultural Journalists at the Capitol during the ag writer's annual meeting.

"Will we get a five-year farm bill this year? I believe we will," said Representative Mike Conaway (R-TX), who was standing in for House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK). Conaway heads the subcommittee on general farm commodities and risk management.

Conaway said that he believes there will be less money for the bill. He doesn't believe the committee will make big changes to how crop insurance is supported by the federal government.

"It will still be strong," Conaway told Agriculture.com in response to a question.

Crop insurers are telling Congress "give us credit for the haircuts we've had in the past," Conaway said.

The House ag committee's ranking Democrat, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, seems to be a strong supporter as well. But he is hearing complaints from some of his farmer constituents about insurance not being limited for very large farms.

Conaway said he expects his committee to mark up a new farm bill sometime late this month or in May, but it won't be easy and it will need support of both parties in the committee to have a chance of passing on the floor of the House.

"There won't be 218 people in either party that will vote for it," he said, referring to the number needed to reach a majority. "I think this will, by necessity, be a bipartisan bill."

Strong support for protecting crop insurance from big changes was voiced by Senate Agriculture Chairwoman, Debbie Stabenow (D-MI).

"We are talking about insurance...so the farmer has skin in the game. It's not a subsidy," said Stabenow. "We need to make sure it's affordable for farmers."

Just as a year ago, negotiating changes to the commodity title of the farm bill and the spending level for the nutrition title remain difficult.

Peterson said that more money could be saved from SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, if the federal government and not states, determined the income level for eligibility for what used to be called food stamps.

The federal threshold for food stamp eligibility is 130% of the poverty level, Peterson said, but in red states, it's actually higher--200% in North Dakota, 165% in Texas and 185% in Arizona, versus 130% in Peterson's state of Minnesota.

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