Up to $5 billion : Western senators introduce disaster bill

The U.S. senators from Montana and South Dakota have introduced emergency disaster assistance legislation aimed at helping farmers in the Western states through what some are calling the worst drought since the Dust Bowl.

The Emergency Agricultural Assistance Act of 2002, S-2800, would provide up to $5 billion in aid to all farmers who suffered crop losses due to weather or other natural disasters in 2001 or 2002.

In introducing the bill, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said meteorological studies show that some areas of his state of South Dakota are now more drought-stricken than they were at the height of the Depression in 1936 because of the ongoing lack of rain in the West.

“As the situation worsens, so does the need for a bigger response,” he told reporters during his weekly press briefing, referring to earlier bills that sought less funding.

Daschle's legislation is the latest in a series of attempts to pass new disaster assistance dating back to last fall when Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., also a sponsor of S-2800, sought unsuccessfully to add $2.8 billion in emergency assistance provision to a supplemental appropriations bill.

Sources say the Congressional Budget Office estimates the crop loss provisions of S-2800 would cost $3.8 billion and the livestock assistance provisions could run as high as $1.2 billion.

Because the legislation asks for an emergency declaration, the spending would not have to be offset by reductions in other programs.

Shortly after the introduction of S-2800, 20 farm organizations sent a letter to the Senate urging that its members support passage of the legislation that was also introduced by Sens. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Tim Johnson, D-S.D.

The National Farmers Union, American Farm Bureau Federation and most of the major commodity organizations, including the National Cotton Council, signed the letter. The NCC said it supports the disaster legislation if it does not require any modifications to the new farm bill.

According to a summary, the bill would provide disaster assistance to farmers who experienced losses in yield and quality due to severe weather, pests and diseases in 2001 and 2002.

It would waive a provision in the Federal Crop Insurance Act prohibiting emergency disaster assistance and directs the secretary of agriculture to make emergency financial assistance available from Commodity Credit Corp. funding.

The legislation establishes the same loss threshold as used in previous legislation, which covered 2000 crop losses. The bill also makes funds available for livestock losses for 2001 and 2002 in any county that has received an emergency designation by the president or the secretary of agriculture.

Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, scheduled a mark-up session for the legislation on Aug 1. But no definitive action was taken on the legislation.

Sens. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., have also introduced disaster assistance legislation that would provide $620 million for the Livestock Assistance Program. The cost of the Hagel-Enzi bill would be offset by spending reductions in the new farm bill.

And several House members from the Midwest have introduced legislation to provide emergency assistance to farmers who suffered crop losses in 2002. The CBO has scored the cost of their bill at $2.4 billion.

Rep. John Thune, R-S.D., one of the authors of the House bill, said that funding for the emergency assistance bill could be taken from an estimated $6 billion that he said would not be spent on farm programs during the remaining two months of the 2002 fiscal year.

Aside from the Senate Ag Committee mark-up, Congress is not expected to take further action on disaster assistance legislation until it returns from recess in early September.

President Bush said earlier he was opposed to providing any added assistance to farmers above that provided in the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002. The administration did not comment on the latest bill.

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