House Ag Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) is already talking about hearings and topics regarding a new farm bill. But during a recent interview with Informa Economics, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) said that if she did hold hearings on a new farm bill this year they likely would come later in 2010.
Lincoln said that during the first three months of this year she planned to focus on reauthorizing child nutrition funding "before the budget baseline comes out." Next on the must-do list, she said, is "making sure we deal with the derivatives portion of financing regulatory reform legislation." Lincoln said her panel also would focus a lot on job creation, "helping put the U.S. economy back on track, utilizing rural development programs and other tools to grease job opportunities in the rural sector."
Another item on Lincoln's immediate radar is helping farmers get direct financial aid to compensate for losses suffered last year due to adverse weather. "Farmers in the five states of Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana were hit by weather impacts in the spring and the fall," she said. "Ag bankers are tightening credit requirements and more farmers will have a hard time getting loans. That's what direct aid is needed for production agriculture."
Lincoln said that while low-interest loans helped farmers last year, "a second weather disaster this fall resulted in a very hard time getting crops harvested. Now, farmers are already leveraged, and banks are tightening credit standards. That is why I will push disaster assistance."
Asked if a disaster bill would be a stand-alone measure or attached to a must-have bill, Lincoln said, "Whatever way it gets through in the fastest time."
Regarding the upcoming vote on a climate change bill that will come to the Senate floor this year, Lincoln says there currently are too many unanswered questions about the effects of the bill on both agricultural producers and consumers for her to support the measure. Lincoln said she could not support "as written" the bill sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
Asked about USDA analysis of a university economic model that prompted a lot of concern in farm country due to its conclusions that some 60 million acres could shift from crop and pasture land to trees in 2050 if carbon prices are at $70 per ton, Lincoln said the analysis "raised many concerns." Among these: how many acres of crop land would be converted to forests; how Arkansas farmers would fare under cap and trade; the significant cost increases to the livestock sector; and how consumers and energy costs will be affected.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) is expected to offer an amendment to a Senate bill that would raise the debt ceiling (which the Senate must consider later this month) that would deal with climate issues. Murkowski's amendment would withdraw funds for one year to implement EPA's endangerment finding on carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases. Asked if she would support the amendment, Lincoln said, "I haven't really looked at [Murkowski's] amendment. But I have a feeling I could support it."
Lincoln also said she continues to favor some type of legislation that focuses more on energy as opposed to climate change, noting that issues like conservation, renewable energy standards, renewable fuel requirements and other incentives were included in a bill that was approved by the Energy Committee.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has indicated that when the Energy panel's bill was ready to go to the Senate floor that he would "come with an energy tax package to go with it." Lincoln said the concept there would be to "jumpstart" some of the initiatives, which would yield results such as creating jobs, reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil and lowering U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Her concerns on climate-change legislation, however, remain. "First, it doesn't make a lot of sense," she noted. "How can we have a whole cap and trade system before we even have financial market regulatory reform for agencies that would oversee it?" Plus, she said, there's a question of how long it would take EPA to write the regulations for a cap-and-trade system. "I'm not saying it can't work," Lincoln stressed. "But there are a lot of serious questions that need to be answered."