Peoria Journal-Star

July 22, 2001

Illinois' take up for grabs in farm bill
  Farmers from outside Midwest want larger share of federal money 


By DORI MEINERT 
COPLEY NEWS SERVIC

WASHINGTON, D.C. - When the House Agriculture Committee came to
Peoria more than a year ago, Illinois farmers gave federal lawmakers an earful about what they thought was wrong with federal agriculture policy. 

Scores more have traveled to the nation's capital since to try to put a
human face on their problems. 

Within the next two weeks, the debate over the nation's farm policy for
much of the next decade is expected to shift into high gear as the House
Agriculture Committee begins drafting a $168 billion farm bill. 

The stakes are high for the Midwest and particularly for Illinois, which has
received the third-largest amount of federal farm payments, $5.6 billion, over
the last five years. Only Iowa and Texas received more. 

"How we write this act and what we do is going to set the parameters for
the family farmers' ability to thrive and prosper in the years to come," said
freshman Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Urbana, one of just two Illinois members on
the 51-member committee and the only Illinois Republican. The other is
two-term Rep. David Phelps, D-Eldorado. 

Illinois Department of Agriculture Director Joe Hampton will meet with
members of the Illinois congressional delegation this week to discuss the
recommendations of the state's farm bill task force. 

Competition for ag dollars will be fierce. 

The recent $1.3 trillion tax cut and predictions of a waning budget surplus
have reduced the amount of money available for all new programs and made
the farm bill a tantalizing target for a broader range of interests. 

Lawmakers from New England, the mid-Atlantic states and the West are
looking to farm conservation programs for money for their farmers, who are
more apt to grow fruits and vegetables or run dairy farms. They don't qualify
for traditional farm programs that aid growers of corn, wheat, rice and
cotton. 

"When you look at the farm program, there is growing resentment across the
country in regards to who's benefiting from the farm programs and who's
being left out," said Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., who has written a bill to provide
$8 billion more for farm conservation programs. 

"What we're trying to do is bring a more equitable balance to farm programs
and the funds that are available," said Kind, whose bill has 64 co-sponsors.
None are from Illinois. 

The 1996 legislation known as the "Freedom to Farm" law was supposed to
wean farmers off federal government support with declining payments, while
giving them more control over what they could plant. 

But low crop prices have pushed Congress into providing emergency
assistance totaling $26 billion since 1998. 

Although the current farm law doesn't expire until next year, both House and
Senate leaders are trying to move quickly to lock in the generous allotment
for agriculture in the fiscal 2002 budget resolution. 

House Committee Chairman Larry Combest, a Republican, and Charles W.
Stenholm, the committee's senior Democrat, both of Texas, recently released
a four-page "concept paper" that has drawn a cautious response from Illinois
farm groups. 

"There are many components in there that I think Illinois farmers would find
favorable," said Chuck Spencer, Illinois Farm Bureau's director of national
legislation. 

But the devil is in the details, said one congressional aide, noting that the
1996 law is 479 pages long. 

Whether Illinois retains a significant portion of federal farm payments will be
determined by how complex formulas used to determine farmers' funding
levels are shaped under the new law. 

With a committee dominated by Texans, "Speaker Hastert may be our trump
card," said Steve Pigg, legislative chairman for the Illinois Corn Growers
Association. 

The House proposal would be a sharp reversal from the GOP-authored
"Freedom to Farm" law. Instead of reducing government subsidies, committee leaders called for the creation of a new $43 billion farm program that would provide "countercyclical payments" when prices go below a certain amount. It's similar to a program Congress killed in 1996 and would be in addition to the two existing subsidy programs. 

The proposal also would boost conservation programs by $1.5 billion a year.
But half of the $1.2 billion designated for the Environmental Quality
Incentives Program would be earmarked for livestock producers. 

Environmentalists argued that the proposed increase isn't enough and would
continue the historically unfair distribution of federal agriculture funds. 

"It will continue to leave two out of three farmers without any funding to
meet our environmental challenges," said Scott Faber of Environmental
Defense, referring to the large backlog of applications in the USDA's
conservation programs. 

"It disproportionately subsidizes the one-third of America's farmers who grow commodity crops and virtually ignores the farmers who grow fruits,
vegetables, produce dairy and produce other non-commodity crops, who are
seeking conservation payments as a way to boost income," Faber said of the
Combest conceptual plan. 

Faber's group is part of a coalition of environmental, recreation and
sportsmen's groups pushing for $11 billion a year for conservation programs.
The coalition hopes to attract votes of urban and suburban lawmakers when
the committee sends a bill to the House floor. 

Although the House is setting a faster pace than the Senate, leaders of both
chambers hope to get a bill to the president's desk by Christmas. 

"Our expectation is, we're going to try to get it done this year," Senate
Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said Thursday. 

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has criticized
the 1996 law for sending a greater share of government subsidies to large
farms instead of the more vulnerable smaller farms and for making it more
difficult for young people to go into farming by driving up land values. 

Farms with annual sales of more than $500,000 received 22 percent of
government payments in 1999, up from 13 percent in 1993, according to a
General Accounting Office report that Harkin released this past week. 

"The bottom line is, we must have a fairer system for providing support to
farmers in the next farm bill," said Harkin, who wants to make conservation a
centerpiece of new farm policy. The House committee doesn't plan to include
energy provisions. But Harkin, a longtime ethanol supporter, has said he
wants to include incentives for farmers to market their products for energy
uses in the Senate bill. 

Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill., a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee,
said he wants to ensure a safety net for farmers without encouraging
overproduction, which lowers prices. 

"I think ultimately what farmers want is higher prices," Fitzgerald said.