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NRCS user fees not killed

Now that Congress seems to be working again, farmers who care about conservation may soon be asked to pay a fee the next time they visit a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office.

Conservation groups, including the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD), were disappointed late last year to learn that the agreement reached between budget committee chairs Paul Ryan (R-WI) of the House and Patty Murray (D-WA) of the Senate, included a provision that allows USDA's NRCS to charge fees of up to $150 for conservation plans.

Conservation groups were hoping that this barrier to greater farmer participation would come down, either when the Appropriations committees finished a spending bill, which Congress passed last week, or in the farm bill conference committee when it produces a final bill.

Apparently, that hasn't happened.

Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told earlier this week that the omnibus spending bill for the current, 2014 fiscal year, doesn't include the user fees.

"Fortunately the omnibus does not include this provision," Johnson said. He said the tacking on user fees "was misguided," and that he doesn't believe Congress should do anything to discourage participation in conservation programs.

But the fact that the spending bill doesn't include any revenue from those fees may not mean they won't be collected. And, so far at least, the farm bill conference committee, which has the power to authorize or prohibit collecting such fees, hasn't resolved this issue.

According to one congressional source familiar with the farm bill conference committee's work, "The appropriations omnibus bill did nothing to reverse the budget deal’s provision requiring a charge by USDA NRCS, for conservation plans. Hence, if the enacted fees were to be reversed or repealed the farm bill would be a suitable bill to do so. But there is not agreement in the farm bill to reverse these fees. Hence they will continue unless and until legislation is enacted to repeal them."

Ferd Hoefner, a lobbyist for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which along with NACD, opposes the fees, agrees that the spending bill didn't kill them.

The fact that the spending bill doesn't include the fees, as Senator Johnson said, is a good sign, according to Hoefner.

"It does not propose to spend any of the fees, which is a strong indication that they (the appropriators) oppose the fees, because otherwise they could have proposed to spend the new revenue the fees would bring in," Hoefner explained.

But Hoefner isn't certain that USDA can simply ignore the budget's mandate to collect the fees.

It's a subject that even confuses congressional staffers, partly because the Ryan-Murray budget isn't a typical budget. Normally, budgets passed in the House and Senate are resolutions, with no force of law. They're meant to be a guide to the other committees in Congress. But the budget passed late last year was signed by President Barack Obama and has the force of law.

The idea for collecting those fees comes from Obama's Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and it's an idea that was in President George W. Bush's budget proposals from OMB as well.

So, even if USDA's NRCS doesn't want to collect those fees from farmers, it may come down to a battle between Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilscack and OMB at the White House, Hoefner believes. "My own guess is they're not going to allow USDA not to do it," he says, referring to OMB.

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