Budget deal imposes conservation fees

Budget deal imposes conservation fees

FUNDING the government looks to get back in more regular order after the House approved a bicameral, bipartisan budget deal last Thursday by a vote of 332-94. The Senate plans to take up the bill before heading home Dec. 20.

The agreement from House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) and Senate Budget Committee chair Patty Murray (D., Wash.) would reduce budget deficits by $85 billion over the next decade and fund federal agencies through fall 2015. This budget deal should prevent another government shutdown and end the cycle of Congress passing continuing resolutions each year to keep the government running.

About $45 billion of the total replaces sequestration cuts in 2014, roughly $20 billion replaces sequestration cuts in 2015 and the remaining $20 billion goes toward deficit reduction.

While 169 Republicans and 163 Democrats voted for the measure, 62 Republicans and 32 Democrats voted against it.

Most of the sequestration cuts will go into effect with the deal, including a 7.2% cut to both the Market Access Program and the Foreign Market Development program. Many agricultural groups depend on these programs to help market their products. Producer dollars combined with the two programs return $115 to the economy for every $1 spent and are crucial tools to promote products abroad.

The proposal includes a new conservation planning user fee that requires the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to charge up to $150 per conservation plan but allows the fee to be waived for conservation plans on highly erodible land and for assistance in complying with federal, state or local regulatory requirements. The plan claims savings of $39 million over 10 years.

Conservation plans are a fundamental first step farmers take to reduce erosion and runoff of sediment and nutrients.

"Reducing nutrients from farm runoff costs almost 60% less than the same reduction from a sewage treatment plant," said Andrew McElwaine, president and chief executive officer of American Farmland Trust. "We should be rewarding farmers who voluntarily put conservation plans in place. Instead, we're going to charge them."

National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) president Earl Garber added, "Imposing conservation planning technical assistance user fees is shortsighted, creating a burden on producers who are simply trying to be proactive and do the right thing for the land and water resources. User fees will discourage producers from implementing critical conservation practices at a time when they have the heavy burden of meeting the demand of a growing population. This will ultimately take a toll on our nation's natural resource base when, as we know, the cost of repair is always greater than the cost of proactive maintenance in the first place."

Although the waivers are appreciated, even the process of seeking a waiver creates an administrative burden for an agency already managing a large workload, the groups contend. At the end of the day, the administrative burden of collecting these fees would potentially outweigh the dollars that would be saved, Garber added.

NACD said it will be urging the House and Senate appropriations committees to prioritize conservation as they make allocations for the agriculture subcommittees.

"Specifically, we're calling for an increase in conservation operations funding to help offset the budget cuts to conservation in relation to NRCS user fees for proactive conservation planning," Garber said.

Volume:85 Issue:51

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