South Dakota lawmakers press farm bill, help for ranchers

Farm Forum

WASHINGTON— Negotiating and implementing Congress’ multibillion-dollar farm bill so that it helps South Dakota, including ranchers who suffered heavy losses during October’s blizzard, is among the top priorities for 2014, the state’s congressional members say.

The House and Senate has each approved a version of the five-year, roughly $500 billion bill, but there are major differences between the two regarding crop subsidies and how much to cut food stamp programs. A new farm bill also would restore emergency protections for livestock producers, a key element for the state.

Lawmakers hope to work out a compromise by early this year, which would mark the first a farm bill has been approved since a 2008 deal. That deal expired in 2012 but was extended until September 2013.

“The immediate priority for 2014 is to get it passed,” Republican Sen. John Thune said. “But part of passing it, and with any major bill, is implementing it. We want to make sure it works, the commodity title, the safety net reforms and everything we’re fighting to get in it.”

The emergency protections for livestock producers would potentially bring relief to South Dakota ranchers who lost between 15,000 and 30,000 cattle when an early season blizzard swept through part of the state in October.

“Disaster assistance will help a lot,” Thune said. “There’s been a lot of suffering in the state.”

South Dakota also has a stake in negotiations between the House and Senate over a water projects bill. Republican Rep. Kristi Noem said she wants the legislation to include a provision that would stop the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from charging some South Dakota residents to use water from the Missouri River.

If that language isn’t included in the legislation, which negotiators hope to finalize by early this year, the corps “could essentially start taxing people for their own water,” Noem said.

The congresswoman also expects to continue working on legislation that seeks to curb sex trafficking by strengthening laws that prosecutors use to go after suspects in such cases. She said she will push House leaders to take up the bill this year.

“The more I dig into this, the more I can’t sleep at night,” Noem said.

Focus also will be on elections. Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson is set to retire, and the race to succeed him is expected to heat up this year.

Other topics important to South Dakota that could come up in Congress include legislation to address flood insurance prices, which skyrocketed on Oct. 1, and several potential energy bills.