The legislative calendar for March continues to be dominated by federal budget and spending legislation. This week, the Senate began work on continuing appropriations to fund the federal government for fiscal year 2013. The current continuing resolution expires on March 27, so Congress is quickly approaching a key deadline. Funding for agriculture, rural development, FDA and related agencies would be set at $20.5 billion, with $824 million in discretionary funds for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The House-passed continuing appropriations bill would fund federal programs at fiscal year 2012 levels minus cuts from sequestration.
Budget resolutions were also introduced this week in the House and the Senate. The House budget proposal, introduced by Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), calls for significant agricultural program reforms, including a 10-year, $31 billion cut to direct payments and crop insurance. The Senate budget proposal, introduced by Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA), would support “responsible spending reductions in farm programs” while providing a deficit neutral reserve fund to write a five-year farm bill. Specifically on conservation, the Senate proposal would support “mak[ing]important investments in conservation programs that provide cost‐shares to keep our lands open and free of development and deterioration.”
The Rural Heritage Conservation Extension Act, S. 526, was introduced this week to extend the enhanced conservation easement tax deduction that was introduced in the Senate. Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) introduced the bill with Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) as an original co-sponsor. The bill would make permanent the enhanced tax deduction for donations of conservation easements. The incentive was renewed for 2013 in the fiscal cliff bill earlier this year.
USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan has announced that she will be leaving the department. Deputy Secretary Merrigan has served with distinction at USDA, promoting issues ranging from the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative to organic agriculture and local foods. Her immediate plans are not known, nor are plans for her replacement. American Farmland Trust commends Deputy Secretary Merrigan for her service to America’s farmers and ranchers, and for her valuable contributions to protecting and maintaining productive farmland across the country.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has released updated numbers reflecting significantly less savings associated with last year’s Senate bill and the House Ag committee bill—S. 3240 and H.R. 6083, respectively—were those bills enacted in 2013. The total reduction in previously estimated savings for the conservation title, while acknowledging a one year shift in the period covered, amounts to between $1.3 and $1.7 billion over ten years. This has the potential for significant impacts to conservation as work begins on the farm bill this year.