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Long Awaited Relief

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Last year 26 out of Idaho's 44 counties were declared disaster areas due to prolonged drought conditions, and it was the agricultural community that suffered the biggest loss. From livestock producers to fruit and vegetable growers, every aspect of Idaho agriculture wilted in some way because of low snowpack levels and rainfall amount in 2002.

Devastating drought was not limited to Idaho alone, though, as nearly 80 percent of the country was declared as disaster areas due to weather-related conditions. For many states, drought has only gotten worse, building upon the damage of preceding years and defying regional boundaries. The U.S. Senate recognized last September the need to address the negative economic impact drought was causing farmers by passing a crop and livestock assistance amendment as part of the Interior Appropriations Bill.

That bill languished in a Senate controlled and mismanaged by a liberal Democratic Leadership clique, along with ten other appropriations bills, leaving farmers with no choice but to wait until January for the new Congress before they could receive assistance for last year's losses. The new Republican majority quickly took up the leftover appropriations bills and accomplished in less than three weeks what the previous Senate didn't accomplish in five months. In the midst of that activity, we hammered out a $3.1 billion dollar disaster amendment targeted to get money on the ground to farmers almost immediately, yet fit responsibly within the budget constraints set by President Bush and Congress.

Disaster relief was brought to the forefront of the appropriations debate by Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS), Chairman of the Agriculture Committee, and as a member of the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, I was able to help fashion the amendment. It took a bipartisan effort to construct a fair and balanced package, and I worked with my colleagues in both parties to ensure that farmers nationwide would be helped in a responsible way.

Relief was way past due to farmers and ranchers, and it was imperative we pass a bill that would provide assistance as quickly as possible, be acceptable to the Administration and not take anything away from the Farm Bill. It is my hope that we have accomplished that task with this amendment. Once the finalized appropriations bill is signed by the President, farmers in those 26 declared Idaho counties, as well as newly included Payette County, will be able to apply for assistance and have payments disbursed within four weeks. There are numerous ways that Idaho applicants will benefit from this assistance.

Crop producers would receive 42 percent of their 2002 direct payment as an additional bonus payment. In order to be eligible, however, producers must commit to purchasing crop insurance coverage in each of the next two years. Livestock producers who missed the Livestock Compensation Program (LCP) application deadline in one of the eligible LCP counties, including Payette, would be allowed to now apply. Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) participants who refunded a 25 percent government payment in order to graze and/or hay their own CRP ground in 2002 would receive reimbursement.

$100 million would be set aside in grants for fruit and vegetable growers and the Secretary of Agriculture would have discretion to allocate this direct assistance to the States, who will ultimately decide how best to spend it. This could provide needed assistance to potato, apple and several other specialty crop producers in Idaho. $80 million will be made available for sugarbeet producers who have suffered weather-related losses. $2.3 billion in assistance is being set aside to commodity crop producers in supplemental fixed payments.

The Senate Omnibus Appropriations Bill, including this amendment, will now go to a conference committee where the differences between it and the version passed by the House of Representatives will be worked out, before securing final Congressional approval and being sent to the President for his signature. I will serve as a conferee during those negotiations and have the opportunity to fine tune the legislation. In addition, it will be my goal to ensure Idaho's farmers and ranchers receive the necessary tools to sustain the jobs and industry that contribute so much to our state and national economy.

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