Congressman Frank Lucas chaired a hearing to sort out the dispute among administration officials, members of Congress, and conservation groups as to how the funding for conservation programs in the 2002 farm bill should be implemented.
“Everybody seems to be pointing to someone else for the blame on how this fiasco was made,” the Oklahoma congressman said. “We need to resolve this dispute so that critical conservation programs receive the funding we intended in the 2002 farm bill.”
Lucas, who chairs the agriculture subcommittee with jurisdiction over conservation issues, called the hearing in response to an ongoing debate among USDA officials, members of the House and Senate Agriculture and Agriculture Appropriations Committees and conservation groups over how to implement funding for technical assistance for certain conservation programs.
Technical assistance in the programs can help farmers and landowners plan and implement soil and water conservation practices and is administered by USDA field staff and conservation district employees. Language in the 2002 farm bill addressed the funding for technical assistance through mandatory funding, but since being signed into law, contradictory language on the issue has been passed in two appropriations bills, as a result of differing legal opinions from the General Accounting Office and the U.S. Department of Justice.
“It seems only logical that technical assistance for each program be paid for only through the program's allocated funds, but what's logical and what happens are sometimes two very different things in Washington,” Lucas said.
Now USDA administration officials have spent funding designated for EQIP and other specific programs on technical assistance for other conservation programs, such as the Wetlands Reserve Program.
In the June 4 hearing, Lucas heard from Deputy Agriculture Secretary Jim Moseley and representatives from livestock, conservation, and producer groups.
The witnesses gave their concerns with the funding of technical assistance for the farm bill conservation programs, and their proposals for solutions to the funding problem. Witnesses from the livestock, conservation, and producer groups testified that the current technical assistance funding needed to be changed.
Lucas has introduced a bill to prevent the conservation funds from being spent on other projects, by requiring that funds set aside for conservation programs can only be spent on those programs. The bill sets aside funding for four conservation programs — the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the Farmland Protection Program, the Grassland Reserve Program, and the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program.
In today's hearing, Deputy Secretary Moseley expressed support for Lucas' bill, saying USDA's goals were “extremely compatible in concept” with Lucas' bill.
During the debate on the 2002 farm bill, Lucas pushed the House Agriculture Committee to fully fund EQIP and introduced a bill to provide adequate funding for the program, which was previously funded at $174 million per year. The farm bill includes $9 billion for EQIP over the next 10 years. But the funding struggles continue in the implementation of the bill.
Lucas is chairman of the Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Credit, Rural Development, and Research.