By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor
WASHINGTON (DTN) -- Farm groups, agribusinesses and rural advocates are finding much to like in the $1.3 trillion federal omnibus spending bill released late Wednesday.
On the regulatory front, the bill includes:
-- A provision that would relieve livestock producers of the emissions reporting requirements under EPA Superfund laws as the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) indicated, effectively assuring 200,000 farms and ranches around the country from dealing with the emissions requirement.
-- The bill gives livestock haulers an exemption from new federal rules on electronic logging devices (ELDs) until at least Sept. 30, 2018. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration will have more time to educate livestock haulers on ELDs while the industry works on solutions to the existing hours of service rules that currently do not work for truckers driving livestock across this great nation.
-- Section 199A Fix: The 199A fix included in the bill will equalize tax treatment of commodity sales to cooperatives and non-cooperatives while also providing a flow-through deduction from co-ops to their members similar to the old Section 199 deduction for domestic production activities.
The Section 199A fix, which is retroactive to Jan. 1, 2018, was supported by a broad group of agribusinesses, spearheaded by the National Grain and Feed Association. Still, farmers who saw the "grain glitch" as a 20% deduction on gross sales are likely going to be disappointed that Congress greatly reduced the benefits of the tax break for selling to farmer cooperatives. The National Farmers Union was one of the few groups calling on lawmakers not to make the change.
Congress is expected to pass the spending bill by March 25, but already there are reports that House conservatives will seek to make changes to the bill through amendments on the House floor. That could slow down debate moving forward.
The funding bill also includes several major funding initiatives for USDA programs and rural America, including $600 million in investment for a new pilot grant and loan program for rural broadband. USDA was also given just over $1.05 billion for rural water and wastewater infrastructure, a boost of $500 million to help address the $3 billion backlog in funding. The Senate Appropriations Committee said this would support an additional $2.9 billion in loans and $495 million in grants.
As Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., told reporters on Wednesday, the bill also addresses a longstanding problem in the U.S. Forest Service over funding for wildfires. For years, the Forest Service has had to shift funding from other programs to deal with escalating costs for wildfires. The funding fix will eventually shift wildfire response to an emergency disaster fund.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Association highlighted several areas where funding was boosted, or at least avoided cuts, which include:
-- Farm Service Agency direct farm ownership and operating loans funded at $3 billion, an amount that should be sufficient to meet the anticipated increase in farmer demand.
-- Conservation Operations and Technical Assistance: $874 million appropriated, an increase of $10 million to provide land users with the conservation delivery system needed to achieve the benefits of a healthy and productive landscape.
-- Farm Bill conservation programs: This the first time in a decade that funding for farm bill conservation programs has been left intact in an appropriations bill. Overall discretionary funding for the Natural Resources Conservation Service was pegged at $1.04 billion, $8 million above last year and $262 million higher than requested by the Trump administration. The funding includes $150 million for Watershed and Flood Prevention Operations Program to support investments in rural towns.
-- Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE): $35 million appropriated; a 30% increase and the highest funding level in the program's 30-year history.
-- Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program: $3 million in appropriations for outreach and technical assistance for farmers and ranchers of color and military veteran farmers, in addition to the program's $10 million in farm bill funding.
-- Food Safety Outreach Program: $7 million appropriated; a $2 million (40%) increase in funding for farmer food safety training.
-- Value-Added Producer Grant Program: $15 million appropriated; this funding level represents a maintenance of the increase in this program to support producer entrepreneurship received in FY 2017.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) praised congressional appropriators, noting the robust funding levels for NSAC's top priorities were achieved despite the delays and political challenges getting a bill done.
"Congress, in particular the members of the House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees, have produced an agriculture appropriations bill that sends a clear message about their commitment to the sustainability of our food and farm system," said Greg Fogel, policy director at NSAC. "We thank Congress for delivering a bill that provides increased funding for programs that help farmers and ranchers start careers in agriculture, stay profitable and sustainable over the long-term, protect our shared natural resources, support their communities, and conduct cutting edge agricultural research."
Colin Woodall, NCBA's senior vice president of government affairs, pointed to the regulatory relief provided in the funding bill.
"The omnibus spending bill includes a number of positive developments for cattlemen and women, including language that would prevent 200,000 farms and ranches from being regulated like toxic waste sites; delay the implementation of electronic logging devices for livestock haulers for another six months; and provide a critical fix for wildfire funding that also provides expedited authority to implement much-needed vegetation management on federal lands," Woodall said. "We are also glad to see refinements to the tax code that address the 199A issue. NCBA and our affiliates have been working closely with Congress to ensure the spending bill addresses issues of concern for U.S. ranchers and beef producers, and we are glad to see our policy priorities reflected in the legislation. We urge Congress to take the next step and vote 'Yes' when the bill comes up for a vote."
Despite the months of delays over immigration, the bill doesn't address the immigration challenges that forced the delays, which included a brief government shutdown. The action over people brought to the U.S. as children, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, remains unresolved.
The House passed the bill early Thursday afternoon and President Trump was awaiting a final Senate vote to approve it. Statements and fact sheets coming from the White House indicated the president supports the spending bill.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN
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