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Ag-disaster package in limbo

Early Thursday, the Senate Finance Committee released its version of a jobs bill. Included in the bill — titled “Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment (HIRE) Act” — is an agriculture-targeted $1.5 billion disaster package.

The package is based on legislation Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, introduced last November to provide assistance for farmers affected by heavy rains, floods and other weather-related disasters.

The package would provide payments to producers who lost at least 5 percent of their crop in either quality or quantity. Producers would be eligible for disaster payment equal to 90 percent of their yearly direct payment.

The Baucus/Grassley bill would “provide assistance for row-crops, for specialty crops, had some money for aquaculture assistance and a few other things,” says Chris Gallegos, spokesman for Sen. Cochran.

According to several Mid-South politicians’ staffers, the bill — largely authored by Montana Sen. Max Baucus and Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley — had bipartisan support. Quickly endorsed by President Obama it was expected to have a good chance at passage.

That changed when, later in the day, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid introduced his own jobs bill. Sen. Reid’s scaled-down proposal basically contains four provisions — and none of them have the agriculture disaster portion from the Senate Finance Committee bill.

As a result, “We’re kind of at a standstill,” says Gallegos. “We’ve been working with Sen. Lincoln and the Senate Agriculture Committee to try and find some sort of ag-disaster package that’s agreeable and will be able to make it to the floor and pass. We’ve kind of hit a roadblock. … We’ll continue to work with Sen. Lincoln to try and find a path forward.”

As Congress is out of session the week of Feb. 15, nothing will happen with any legislation prior to the week of Feb. 22.

“I don’t know that Reid’s version of the bill has the votes to pass,” says one of the staffers. “We do know the Senate Finance Committee version does have the votes, has bipartisan support.”

The release of Reid’s alternate version “was very surprising” says another staffer.

Reid wants to move the pared-down bill “as quickly as possible,” says Gallegos. It remains to be seen “how much support Sen. Reid will get for his bill and what kind of amendments will be offered that could drag out the debate.”

On the House side, similar disaster relief legislation is still being pushed by Arkansas Rep. Marion Berry and Mississippi Rep. Travis Childers.

“The congressmen are still working very hard on this and on top of it,” said Childer’s spokesperson Dana Edelstein on Friday morning. “We’re in communication with the Senate, trying to get a better idea of what’s going on there. (The Senate Finance Committee version) is certainly a step in the right direction, a good sign.”

Childers “wants this done yesterday. With the big snow (in Washington, D.C.), the legislative schedule has been pushed back. But he’s doing everything he can to get (disaster relief) to the floor as soon as possible.”

Meanwhile, Lincoln “thinks the Senate Finance Committee jobs bill is the way to go,” says Courtney Rowe, communications director for the Senate Agriculture Committee. “She’s going to do everything she can to push that bill to the floor and have it be the jobs bill that’s voted on.”

In a statement released Friday afternoon, Lincoln reiterated that.

“Arkansas’s farm families, like many across the nation this year, have been devastated by weather-related disasters,” said Lincoln. “Heavy rains and flooding made last season’s harvest nearly impossible and many producers are now unsure if they will be able to survive another year. With agriculture providing over 270,000 jobs and contributing over $9 billion each year to Arkansas’s economy, we cannot afford to see our farmers go out of business. This disaster package will provide the disaster relief that our producers need quickly and will help save jobs right here in Arkansas.”

Lincoln claimed the Senate Finance Committee bill would provide:

• An exemption from Social Security payroll taxes for every worker hired in 2010 that has been unemployed for at least 60 days.

• An extension of the enhanced small business expensing rules, which allow small businesses to elect to deduct the cost of qualified property they purchase in the year when placed in service.

• An extension of several tax provisions that expired at the end of 2009, which provide much needed tax relief to individuals and businesses. These include the research and development credit, the biodiesel tax credit, the 15-year recovery period for leasehold, restaurant, and retail improvements, the new markets tax credit and others.

• An extension of highway and transit programs through calendar year 2010.


TAGS: Legislative
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