“We are seeing some things included in the farm bill come back up for debate, such as payment limits, and other programs being modified,” says Shipman, speaker at an agricultural economics meeting at Mississippi State University in Starkville.

The 2002 farm bill’s Conservation Security Program is a case in point. The House Appropriations Committee recently reported out its version of the FY2004 agriculture appropriations bill, and it virtually zeros the farm bill-authorized program out for next year. The budget proposal also reduces funding for other conservation programs.

Expected to go before the full House in mid-July, the House agriculture appropriations bill reduces budget allocations by $843 million, slashing many programs authorized by the 2002 farm bill.

The newly created Conservation Security Program was zeroed out; Wetland Reserve Program funding was reduced by $70 million; and funding for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program was lowered by about $30 million.

The savings achieved by eliminating the Conservation Security Program from the House agriculture appropriations bill was about $53 million, Shipman says.

“That $53 million has now been spent in the House version of its appropriations bill,” he noted. “If program funding is restored, $53 million has to come from something that has already been funded. Does it come from the WIC program? Does it come from NRCS’s conservation operations account? Does it come from ag research programs? Those are the difficult kinds of decisions being faced in today’s budget reality.”

The schedule for Senate Appropriations development is still unclear but Beltway insiders anticipate a markup during July by both the subcommittee and full committee, with floor action possible sometime before the August recess.

Senators are currently faced with approximately $900 million less to spend on the agriculture appropriations bills than they had one year ago, according to Shipman. “That money has to be found somewhere just to keep the same programs going that we had last year, without the added expenses associated with pay costs for USDA employees, inflation costs, and funding needs for new programs that were authorized in the farm bill.”

If the Conservation Security Program stays zeroed out for 2004, what are the changes it will re-emerge in 2005, or even 2006?

According to Shipman, the longer the program lies dormant, the fewer savings that Congressional Budget Office will allocate to a committee or a congressman who wants to offer an amendment to zero it out. That means, at some point if there is no longer any savings benefit allowed by the budget gurus in Washington, D.C., there also won’t be the incentive there to zero out the program.”

It all goes back to the Congressional Budget Office’s initial budget scoring for Conservation Security Program, which was substantially lower than many program experts anticipated.

“I don’t think they understood the program very well, or realized the ability of the Conservation Security Program to reach into new areas of agriculture, and address so many different kinds of conservation issues,” Shipman says. “It’s not just a row crop program. It’s an entitlement program that a lot of people can take advantage of, including fruit and vegetable producers and livestock producers. If you meet the criteria, and implement the practices that are prescribed in the law, you get the money.”

This realization brought with it a higher amount of money that needed to be budgeted. And so, as time went on, the Congressional Budget Office realized the program’s budget implications, and they raised their estimate of how much money it would cost to put the Conservation Security Program on the ground.

“Time will tell us very soon about the prospects for the Conservation Security Program,” he says. “It doesn’t generate a whole lot of budget savings, so it is still possible we may be able to find additional money to offset these savings.”

On the other hand, he says, “It’s going to be a tough year to try and balance all of these competing draws on the dollars. A lot of times, unfortunately, we don’t have the money to do the things that are desperately needed to help particular programs that we find in agriculture.

“We have a very careful balance in Washington, D.C., today among the production agriculture community, the nutrition community, and the conservation community. When we see reductions in any one of these programs, it upsets that balance.”

He said funding the latest disaster program forced some difficult decisions.

“When Congress looked earlier this year at how it would finance ad hoc disaster assistance there was a decision made that we could either take away a program that hasn’t been started and that no one was receiving payments or benefits under, or we could take away something that is active and that’s why the decision was made to reduce CSP funding at that time.

“Everything that Congress puts into law has to be implemented, and the opportunity for interpretation is always there. It’s sometimes difficult to divine the intent of Congress.”

e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com