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Most Georgia lawmakers back farm bill, but some see missed opportunity

Most Georgia lawmakers on Capitol Hill endorsed a sprawling farm policy bill on Wednesday that dodged a fierce debate over food stamps that had previously divided the state’s delegation, agriculture officials and anti-hunger players.

Local farm and commodity groups, as well as the head of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, cheered the passage of the $867 billion farm bill, which would set federal nutrition, rural development and agriculture policy guidelines for the next five years.

“American and Georgia rural economies are struggling in the face of successive years of declining prices, high and rising foreign tariffs and subsidies, and the unpredictability of Mother Nature. This farm bill helps address these and countless other issues to ensure farmers, ranchers and rural America can survive these difficult times,” said Andy Lucas, a spokesman for the Georgia Farm Bureau.

The bill’s price tag angered conservative and fiscal responsibility groups that said lawmakers passed up a prime opportunity to overhaul the government’s pricey crop subsidy and anti-poverty programs. Three Georgia Republicans ultimately voted against the legislation.

“I fully support the farmers and the agricultural industry in Georgia, and I worked desperately in the House for needed reforms, but the Senate struck most of those reforms out,” said Republican U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk of Cassville. “It’s time we send our colleagues on the other side of the aisle, and in the Senate, a firm message that our government programs need substantial revisions.”

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The legislation now heads to the White House. President Donald Trump has signaled he’ll sign the measure after senior members of his administration, most prominently Agriculture chief and former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, pushed for its adoption.

Here’s a look at what the twice-a-decade legislation would mean for Georgia:

Food stamp changes 

Perhaps the most notable part of the compromise bill is what it excludes.

House Republicans, with Trump and Perdue behind them, had pushed hard for language that would have boosted work requirements for able-bodied adults receiving extended benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, previously known as food stamps.

Georgia GOP lawmakers said the changes were reasonable ones that would help safeguard the financial solvency of the entitlement program, but Democrats framed them as mean-spirited and warned they would lead to millions of needy people being kicked off the rolls. Short of votes in the Senate, Republicans were forced to drop the food stamp changes from the final compromise bill in favor of a few narrower tweaks, a move that pleased Kyle Waide, the president and CEO of the Atlanta Community Food Bank.

“We’re really pleased that ultimately the committee rejected the proposals that would have taken food assistance away from kids and families and seniors,” he said. “One in six Georgians participate in the SNAP program, so seeing it protected is a win for our state.”

In a bid to drum up support among conservatives, Perdue vowed to use his authority at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to rein in state waivers for work requirements already on the books.

Republican U.S. Rep. Austin Scott of Tifton, one of the farm bill negotiators, supported the work requirements but said the GOP had to adhere to political reality following the midterm elections.

“If we were going to have the House and the Senate and the presidency in January, then maybe it would have been different,” he said. “But the fact of the matter is that Nancy Pelosi is going to be the speaker in January, and the deal was simply going to get worse, not better.”

Rural broadband

The bill sets new federal standards seeking to improve rural broadband delivery, a major focus of the Georgia Legislature as it seeks to revitalize the state’s most sparsely populated corners. It would give Perdue more power to deem rural areas of the country that previously received federal money for low-speed broadband projects as underserved. That could allow more grant money to flow for faster projects in the future.

It also includes language authored by Scott that would give the U.S. Agriculture Department authority to give out loans and grants for broadband projects that link rural regions to principal high-speed data routes. That middle ground is often the priciest and riskiest portion of broadband deployment, according to Scott’s office.

Local crops

The legislation does not make major changes to the federal safety net for commodities such as peanuts and soybeans. Congress gave struggling cotton growers a financial lifeline back in February and did not appear to make any changes to that program in the farm bill. U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson did tout a provision in the new bill that would allow increased coverage if five-year crop price averages escalate significantly.

Federal relief for farmers hit hard by Hurricane Michael is expected to come as part of a separate government funding bill later this month.

The compromise farm bill does not include $18 million that the Senate had initially set aside for Georgia blueberry and peach growers whose crops were decimated in a late-season freeze in 2017. The office of U.S. Sen. David Perdue said it was “exploring options” to include a similar amount of money in the upcoming federal spending bill. Georgia lawmakers said the bill would prioritize the research and development of new risk management policies for such specialty crops.

Other notable changes

The legislation also includes:

  • Language that would authorize the U.S. Forest Service to sell 30 more isolated parcels of land in North Georgia’s Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest that had previously been identified by the feds for potential sale. Republican proponents, including David Perdue, Isakson and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins of Gainesville, said it would create a more contiguous park boundary that will be easier for park rangers to manage. Proceeds from the sales would go into an account the Forest Service could use to buy land with conservation or recreational value within the forest boundary from willing private sellers.
  • $95 million for an agriculture scholarship at 19 land-grant historically black colleges and universities, including Georgia’s Fort Valley State. The program was a top priority of Atlanta Democratic U.S. Rep. David Scott, who teamed up with David Perdue to slip the money into the Senate version of the bill after it had been omitted in the measure the House passed.
  • Language designating turf grass as a high priority at land-grant colleges and universities. The University of Georgia-Tifton is known as a major player in the research field.

How Georgia lawmakers voted

Yes: Republican U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue; U.S. Reps. Rick Allen, R-Evans; Sanford Bishop, D-Albany; Doug Collins, R-Gainesville; Drew Ferguson, R-West Point; Tom Graves, R-Ranger; Karen Handel, R-Roswell; Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia; John Lewis, D-Atlanta; Austin Scott, R-Tifton; David Scott, D-Atlanta; and Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville.

No: U.S. Reps. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler; Jody Hice, R-Monroe; and Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville.

Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at ajc.com/politics.

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