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Stabenow open to farm bill changes

Just before the Senate is expected to debate its 2012 farm bill this week,  Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) said she's willing to consider last-minute changes to commodity programs, if they can work within the risk management program that her committee's bill would create.

"We've not made changes as of this point," Stabenow told reporters Monday.

Stabenow said she talked to a group of rice farmers by telephone last week. They wanted to continue existing commodity programs, she said, and she told them she was open to identifying ways to make the Senate bill's new Agricultural Risk Coverage (ARC) program work for them.

"With the huge deficit we have in this country, we can't afford to just have a government check," she said.

"My goal as chairwoman is to be fair to every commodity," Stabenow said at one point during a telephone press conference.

She said, an analysis of shallow loss programs by Ohio State University economist Carl Zulauf, showed that it would have compensated growers for some of the lost income on program crops in the late 1990s. And it is fair to all commodities.

Zulauf's analysis also showed that rice growers would have benefited the most during the late 1990s slump, getting price protection on more than 20% of the five-year average, compared with less than 9% for corn.

Stabenow said that she's proud of a bill that had bipartisan support when her committee approved it in April, and again when 45 senators signed a letter urging Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to bring the bill to a vote.

"In our judgment this represents the most significant reform in agricultural policy in decades," she said. "The bottom line in the reforms is that the era of direct payments is over....We're not going to be paying farmers for crops they don't grow and we're not going to be paying farmers when they're doing very well."

The bill keeps conservation compliance for its marketing loan and ARC programs, but does not re-establish it for crop insurance eligibility.

Additional reforms include tightening up payment limits, she said, and closing a loophole that allowed urban farm owners to collect program payments by saying they're actively engaged in farming. "The managers have to be on the farm and farming," she said.

Stabenow said ending direct payments will save about $15 billion over the next 10 years, and that it's a real savings, not just transferring the savings to a new commodity program.

Altogether, the bill would save $23 billion over 10 years, she said. Additional savings come from consolidating conservation programs and from about $4 billion in nutrition spending. That amount is more than was required by the Budget Control Act which Congress passed last year. It mandates cutting federal spending by $1.2 trillion over the next decade.

"We've gone through every line of what the last farm bill does," she said. The result was the consolidation of about 100 USDA programs.

"This is real reform. It's deficit reduction," she said.

Stabenow said she was pleased that her committee's bill does not cut spending on food stamps and nutrition programs nearly as much as proposals in the House of Representatives. But she didn't appear willing to support an amendment that will be offered by the Senate committee's member from New York, Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand.

In a press release Monday, Gillibrand announced that she her amendment would restore that nutrition spending by cutting subsidies to crop insurance companies, which she said are making huge annual profits.

When asked about Gillibrand's amendment, Stabenow said "At this point in time we've struck a very delicate balance. I think we have this balance right now and it's going to be important to keep it."

That doesn't mean Stabenow will be resisting any changes to her committee's bill.

"We may move a series of amendments that have been agreed to," she said.

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