House budget proposal hurts conservation programs
Sustainable ag, environmental groups turn to Senate for help restoring mandatory spending levels

June 7, 2005: The House’s Agricultural Appropriations Committee has sent its budget recommendation to the house floor and conservation groups are not happy. The proposed budget will entail cutting $464 million or 21% from conservation assistance promised to farmers. After expressing their disappointment with the budget, several organizations have taken their case to the Senate.

In a letter to the Senate Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee 25 sustainable agriculture, scientific, conservation and environmental organizations urged the Senators to maintain the mandatory funding levels agreed to in the 2002 Farm Bill for the major voluntary conservation incentive programs. Senate action on the agricultural appropriations bill is expected to begin the week of June 13. The House was expected to vote on their budget Wednesday June 8.

If passed, the bill pending before the House would slash $188 million (16%) from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, $153 million (38%) from the Wetlands Reserve Program, $73 million (22%) from the Conservation Security Program, $25 million (29%) from the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, $16.5 million (17%) from the Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program, $14 million (70%) from the Agricultural Management Assistance program, and $9 million (15%) from the Ground and Surface Water Conservation Program. The House bill went even further than the proposed $392 million (18%) cut to the same Farm Bill conservation programs contained in President Bush’s budget proposal released in February.

The 2002 Farm Bill included mandatory funding for each of these programs, meaning these programs do not require annual appropriations; if appropriators do nothing, they are funded at their farm bill levels. Appropriators can, however, prohibit spending on “salaries and expenses” to implement farm bill programs above some specified level, in essence re-opening the farm bill through the backdoor and changing its basic terms. The savings thus obtained are then used to offset other spending initiatives in the appropriations bill. Theoretically, similar backdoor savings could be made through limitations to the commodity or nutrition titles of the farm bill, but in practice congressional appropriators have targeted only conservation, rural development, and agricultural research for limitations on mandatory spending.

The letter notes the proposed cuts come at a time when three out of every four farmers seeking conservation assistance are being turned down due to lack of funds and the backlog of approved conservation plans already exceeds available farm bill dollars by a three-to-one margin. The groups signing the letter conclude the needs of the producers across the country are not being met and the environmental promise of the conservation title is being compromised.

The organizations specifically urge the Senator appropriators to forgo any backdoor appropriations limitation on the Farm Bill’s Conservation Security Program, noting that such caps are antithetical to the fundamental character of the “green payments” program. The groups also urge the Senate to improve Wetlands Reserve Program funding to at least the 200,000 acre level proposed by the President as part of his Wetlands Initiative. The largest federal program to restore wetlands, the WRP is authorized in the Farm Bill for an up to 250,000 acre enrollment each year.

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