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Farm bill conference may draw more interest this time

Chip Morgan remembers going to meetings of the House-Senate farm bill conference committee in 2002 and marveling at how he and the National Cotton Council's John Maguire were the only farm group representatives there.

Morgan, the Delta Council's executive vice president, says it's unlikely House and Senate conferees will attract so little attention when they begin meeting on the 2008 farm bill. Instead, it may be standing room only.

“With the exception of 1985, the changes in this farm bill will affect more farms, farm structures and farm organizations than any farm bill since 1974,” said Morgan, speaking at the Delta Ag Expo. The administration is even looking at revising its definition of a farmer.

“For now, you're operating on a farm bill that has been extended until March 15, meaning you would assume the farm bill conference would be completed by then,” he said. (The conference committee met from January to April in 2002.)

Most of the administration's farm bill opposition centers around the “T” words - tax increases and trade-distorting subsidies. Lately, USDA officials have turned their attention to farm program eligibility and so-called “Manhattan” checks to residents on New York's Park Avenue.

Congressional handicappers have been trying to figure the odds of the House and Senate overriding a veto of a farm bill - the Senate vote was 79-14, while the House margin was 231-191. Overturning a veto depends on how much support the bill garners.

“Chairman Peterson has tax provisions in his bill because he had to find money to expand the nutrition programs,” said Morgan. “You may have noticed the price of rice and almost everything else in the food chain has gone up. Without that expansion, we lose a big nutrition vote.”

The Senate bill also includes tax measures and what Acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner derisively calls “budget gimmicks.” “The Senate moved the last half of the counter-cyclical payments into the next calendar year,” said Morgan. “That's not new. Congress did it in 2005 and 1985 to make the budget numbers work.”

The administration's demands for lowering the adjusted gross income criteria - on top of changes such as the elimination of the three-entity rule in the House and Senate bills - could be the most disconcerting aspect of the conference committee deliberations.

“The issue is not just payment limitations; it's who's eligible to receive payments. If you're a share renter, your landlord may have to bring his tax return to the Farm Service Agency if he or she wants to remain eligible to participate in a share rent operation.

“Those are the kinds of issues we're having to work through. I talked to a grower who farms 3,000 acres and has 39 landlords, 37 on share rents. Under the administration's proposal, all 37 would have to come to the FSA office, and if they have more than $200,000 AGI averaged over three years, they will no longer be part of a share agreement with that farmer.”

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