Floridians should follow the farm bill negotiations this summer in Congress. Farm bills are typically dry discussions about reauthorizing a vast array of programs every five years, ranging from farm subsidies to agricultural research to food programs for the poor. The legislation generally generates little controversy. But like everything else in Washington, there is nothing normal about these negotiations and normal assumptions in areas ranging from flood insurance to food stamps to the environment are at risk. Here are six reasons Floridians should pay attention as Senate and House negotiators work out a final farm bill before the end of September:
1. Flood insurance. This generally isnít an issue in the farm bill, but the federal flood insurance program will expire July 31 unless Congress acts quickly. Sen. Marco Rubio helped add a six-month extension of the flood insurance program to the Senateís bipartisan farm bill, and that is the best option at this point.
If Congress misses the deadline, the Federal Emergency Management Agency would stop selling and renewing policies across Florida and the nation in the middle of hurricane season. The House approved a flood insurance bill in November, but it includes some provisions that are unacceptable. One would lead to even larger annual premium increases on homes built at least 43 years ago, including thousands of middle income Tampa Bay homes. The flood insurance program needs an overhaul, but the best option now is to keep it alive as is and leave the issue for the next Congress to tackle.
2. Food stamps. The House farm bill passed without a single Democratic vote, and for good reason. House Republicans added punitive work requirements for low-income Americans on food stamps, which help 5 million to 7 million people who canít afford to feed themselves. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates 400,000 households that now get benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program could lose benefits, and thatís unacceptable. The Senate farm bill does not include the work requirements but adds provisions to fight fraud, the best approach.
3. Pesticides. The House farm bill would ban local governments from adopting pesticide restrictions that are stronger than the federal government restrictions. That is another assault on home rule, and Senate negotiators should not accept it.
4. Environmental programs. The House bill would phase out the Conservation Stewardship Program, often described as the largest conservation effort for working farms. It provides grants to farmers to address issues such as improving water quality, protecting and enhancing topsoil to reduce erosion and flooding, and preserving wildlife habitat. The House cuts conservation spending by nearly $1 billion while the Senate largely preserves conservation spending. Negotiators should not blow up environmental programs that work.
5. Citrus greening. Rubio and Sen. Bill Nelson successfully pushed to add $125 million into the Senate bill to continue the fight against citrus greening. The disease has led to a steep drop in Floridaís citrus production.
6. Sugar supports. Just kidding. Neither the Senate nor the House found the courage to include in their farm bills the Sugar Modernization Act that finally would have ended the indefensible government bailouts of the sugar industry. The House rejected the amendment in May, with just three of Floridaís 27 House members voting for the amendment ó none from Tampa Bay. The Senate never even took the issue up before passing its farm bill last week. Big Sugar wins again.