Ag secretary: Idaho needs farm, immigration bills

zkyle@idahostatesman.comJune 12, 2013 

NIFC, wildfire, sally jewell, tom vilsack, jim risch, boise, ida

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell (center), Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (left), and Idaho Sen. Jim Risch (right) held a press conference on Monday at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise about the upcoming fire season and resources available to manage fire throughout the country.

JOE JASZEWSKI — jjaszewski@idahostatesman.com Buy Photo

Idaho farmers should keep a keen eye on Congress in the coming weeks, said Tom Vilsack, secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Two bills — the farm bill in the House and the immigration reform bill in the Senate — would benefit farmers in Idaho and other ag-driven states, Vilsack told the Idaho Statesman.

“This is probably the most important month seen for rural Idaho and Idaho agriculture in quite some time,” Vilsack said Wednesday in a telephone interview.

The Senate passed its version of the farm bill Tuesday on an 82-15 vote. The bill devotes $500 billion over five years to food stamps, farm-insurance subsidies and other programs.

The House, which let its farm bill die last year, may vote on its version of the bill this week.

Both versions of the bill cut billions in direct subsidy payments to farmers. The cuts are offset by increased spending on subsidized insurance programs. Vilsack said most taxpayers are more willing to aid farmers who lose crops to natural disasters than those who received payments to sit on fallow land.

“This is more palatable for nonfarmers, who sometimes wonder why farmers have been receiving payments when some industries have had record years,” Vilsack said.

The proposals would benefit the Idaho dairy industry by providing payments when the prices of milk and feed reach certain discrepancies, he said. The immigration reform bill also has far-reaching implications for Idaho and other ag-based states, Vilsack said. Congress dragging its feet on immigration could result in farming operations leaving the country, a trend that Vilsack said has already begun.

“What’s at stake is nothing short of securing the workforce to be able to keep crop production in harvest in the United States,” he said.

The Senate immigration bill would provide a path for an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants to receive work visas and eventually to achieve citizenship. That would add to the country’s tax base, increase the solvency of Social Security and reduce the deficit, Vilsack said.

“Those are solid reasons why comprehensive immigration reform is necessary for the country and for Idaho,” he said.

Immigration reform is stumbling in the House. Many Republicans oppose a citizenship path and want stiffer border-security measures. Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, has withdrawn from a bipartisan group that has been writing the House’s version of the bill.

The Senate is debating a bipartisan immigration plan this week. Leaders want to pass the measure by July 4 to send to the House. House leaders haven’t committed to advancing a comprehensive immigration rewrite, but congressional aides told Bloomberg News that House Speaker John Boehner and other leaders plan to focus on immigration before an August recess.

Vilsack said no member of Idaho’s congressional delegation has contacted him to talk about the farm bill.

Zach Kyle: 377-6464

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