St. Charles Herald-Guide

Farm bill comes down to food stamps again

Special to the Herald-Guide - September 20, 2013

By Jeremy Alfrod and John Maginnis

Most folks donít realize that whatís included in the federal Farm Bill has the potential to touch every corner and affect practically all aspects of Louisiana, from the cornfields in the north and sugar cane in the south to insurance for all of the crops in between.

But just like last year, the only thing that really matters are food stamps. Congress couldn’t come to an agreement in 2012 on a new Farm Bill because the House wanted to cut more from the food stamp program than the Senate, so they simply extended by 12 months the entire bill that was slated to expire Oct. 1.

Today, Congress seems no closer to a Farm Bill agreement than a year ago and the same expiration date is approaching. Should Congress allow the Farm Bill to expire, federal law would revert back to 1949 guidelines effective Jan. 1, which would in turn force prices for milk and other commodities to skyrocket.

The House’s next move involves voting on a proposal to cut as much as $40 billion from the food stamp program over the next decade, although it’s expected that the vote will only lead to conference negotiations with the Senate, which has already passed a Farm Bill that cuts food stamps by $4 billion.

Many analysts are already predicting another one-year extension, with hopes that a new five-year Farm Bill can be brokered by the end of the year.To extend or not to extend?The political posturing on the Farm Bill puts Louisiana’s House delegation in the hot seat. Earlier this summer, the last House version, which failed, created interesting coalitions with its proposed $20 billion cut to the food stamp program.

Reps. John Fleming, R-Minden, and Steve Scalise, R-Metairie, voted against it because the bill didn’t cut food stamps enough, while Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, did the same because the targeted reduction was too much. Voting to pass the bill then were Reps. Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman; Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette; and Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge.

As it stands now, both the House and Senate seem to agree on eliminating $4.5 billion in direct cash payments to farmers and replacing that with a crop insurance program. Both also seem to be offering protections for rice and sugar, which had gross farm values in Louisiana last year of $371 million and $586 million, respectively, according to the LSU AgCenter.

International trade rules are causing soybean farmers, valued at $700 million in Louisiana last year, to question some of the planting decisions Congress is making. Plus, the sliding price of corn, valued at $602 million in 2012, is making many in the Bayou State industry nervous as the Farm Bill’s expiration date approaches.

A program for wetland restoration hangs in the balance, too. In its two decades of existence, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wetlands Reserve Program has restored more than 2.6 million acres of wetlands habitat across the nation. If there’s no Farm Bill, the program will vanish.

While an extension will surely soothe nerves, state Agriculture Commission Mike Strain has said that the industry needs the stability of the usual five-year Farm Bill. Without it, banks might start second guessing on loans and farmers could cut back on new investments.

Regardless of what happens, Congress has scheduled its next recess to begin Sept. 20, just 10 days before the Farm Bill expires. The A.G.’s one-man rapid response teamAt last month’s SONRIS to Sunset Conference sponsored by the Department of Natural Resources, the luncheon speech by Don Briggs, president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, was about as routine as they come. That is, until Briggs started to wrap up his talk and transition into the question-and-answer period.

That’s when First Assistant Attorney General Trey Phillips walked up to the podium unannounced and started offering rebuttals on various lawsuit issues involving a New Orleans-area levee board, legacy cases and other topics.

“I was shocked. When he got done all I could tell people was that’s exactly what’s wrong with state government,” said Briggs a few days later. “I guess I have to be concerned now that everywhere I go Trey is going to show up and give his own speech.”

Phillips told LaPolitics that he was not scheduled to speak by the conference organizers, nor did he run it by his boss, Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, a co-sponsor of the conference.

“That was an on-the-spot call on my part,” he said. “It was not cleared in advance by anyone.”

He added that he was not speaking on behalf of Caldwell.

“I was speaking as the first assistant attorney general,”Phillips said.

During his impromptu remarks following Briggs address, Phillips told attendees, “The attorney general will never let anyone misstate the facts. We will always set the record straight.”

Phillips sought to clarify in his remarks that it was Caldwell’s predecessor, former Attorney General Charles Foti, who filed suit against the industry in regard to legacy oilfield contamination cases. He likewise pointed out that Caldwell is “not at all happy with certain parts of that contract” that the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East used in its hiring of attorneys to sue 97 oil and gas companies.They said it“I would be crazy not to look at it.”—State Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, on his considerations to running for the U.S. Senate“If Grover Norquist can’t figure out which Louisiana district has a special election coming up, he definitely should not have a say in our elections.”—Louisiana Democratic Party Executive Director Stephen Handwerk on a press release from Americans for Tax Reform, which Norquist leads, mistaking the 6th Congressional District for the 5th