Draft Senate Farm Bill a Good First Step, Lobby Day at Home
Coming on the heels of the inaugural Land Trust Lobby Day, the Senate Agriculture Committee has released a draft farm bill that reflects the growing influence of the land trust community. We're still working to fix some details, but given the circumstances, we believe it is a good deal for the easement programs that land trusts use most.
Draft Farm Bill Merges Easement Programs, Maintains Funding
Our preliminary take on the Senate Agriculture Committee's draft 2012 Farm Bill is very positive. In the context of $23 billion in overall cuts from the previous farm bill, we have done well with the easement programs. This year, the Appropriations Committee limited the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP) to $150 million. The minimum funding levels for Agricultural Land Easements (FRPP and GRP combined) in the Senate committee bill are listed below:
- FY 2013 - $180 million
- FY 2014 - $190 million
- FY 2015 - $200 million
- FY 2016 - $210 million
- FY 2017 - $100 million (this is the year a new farm bill should be passed)
These are "minimum" levels because the bill states that Agricultural Land Easements will get "at least 40%" of the funding provided for the larger Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (which also includes the Wetland Reserve Program).
Clearly, this money is front-loaded, and as we negotiate the subsequent farm bill in 2017, we will start with a much smaller baseline of $100 million. But five years from now we will have a very different tax system (as much of the current system expires at the end of this year) and a different economy.
The language seems pretty good, but there are a few changes from the current FRPP and GRP programs. We will be going over this with a fine tooth comb. We got much improved cost share language for some grassland projects, but so far, no change in the cash match requirement for farmland projects. Working with Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO), we continue to pursue more flexibility for land trusts to fulfill match requirement through additional landowner donation or recognition of their transaction costs.
For those working on forest conservation, there's both good news and bad news. On the bright side, there will no longer be a limit on how much non-industrial private forestland can be included in a farmland easement. Unfortunately, there's a provision to cap future appropriations for the Forest Legacy Program at $55 million, slightly more than its current funding level. That's one of the provisions we hope will change in the Senate Agriculture Committee's "markup" meeting, scheduled for this Wednesday (UPDATE: The markup was delayed until Thursday. The bill passed out of Committee by a vote of 16-5.).
UPDATE: Great news! Thanks to the hard work of Senator Pat Leahy (D-VT), the Forest Legacy cap was raised to $200 million in advance of the markup. It's still unfortunate to cap a program that has never had one before, but that is more than double it's recent funding levels.
Altogether, we will be thanking committee leaders Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) for their work and urging them to move their bill forward. Getting a bill out of the Senate as soon as possible is very important to getting a farm bill done this year, and that is very important for holding onto as much funding as possible.
The House Agriculture Committee is also moving ahead with a conservation hearing on Thursday, April 26. Visit their website to submit comments online. Review the Alliance's testimony for talking points. Comments must be submitted by May 20, 2012.
Read more about our proposals at www.lta.org/farmbill.
Any Weekend Can Be Your Lobby Day
On April 18, executive directors and board members of 43 land trusts from 23 states descended on Washington, D.C. for more than 120 meetings with key members of the agriculture, appropriations and tax-writing committees that decide the fate of billions of dollars for land conservation. See photos and video from the event, including remarks from Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT).
The Alliance selected participants for the inaugural Land Trust Lobby Day because of their relationships with key members of Congress, but you don't have to fly to Washington to meet your senators and representative! They spend much of the year -- including almost every weekend -- in their district offices meeting with constituents, engaging the local press, and being seen in their communities. We've posted our lobby day fact sheets and briefing materials to make it easy for you to engage your legislators over an upcoming congressional recess.
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