Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., has introduced a bill to prevent funds that were set aside in the 2002 farm bill for conservation projects from being spent on other projects “by Washington bureaucrats.”
“USDA officials are trying to hijack the funding we worked so hard to include in the farm bill for conservation practices to protect the soil and make farmland more productive,” Lucas said in a release. “If we don't find a solution to this problem soon, in two months this money will be gone.”
Lucas' bill requires that funds set aside for conservation programs like EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) can only be spent on those programs.
The bill resulted from an ongoing debate among USDA officials and members of the House and Senate agriculture and appropriations committee over how to fund the technical assistance for certain conservation programs.
Technical assistance is provided by USDA field staff and conservation district employees, who help landowners plan and implement soil and water conservation practices.
Language in the 2002 farm bill addressed the funding for technical assistance, but since being signed into law, Lucas says, 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 Department of Justice.
Now USDA officials are trying to use funding established in the 2002 farm bill designated for EQIP and other specific programs to spend on technical assistance for other conservation programs, such as the Wetlands Reserve Program.
“That flies in the face of the two years of work we did on the farm Bill,” Lucas said. “They're trying to use accounting games to pay for other projects, and the successful conservation practices we've finally gotten adequate funds for will lose out as a result.”
The 2002 farm bill provides $695 million for EQIP this year, but the administration has proposed spending $107 million of that funding for other programs.
During the debate on the 2002 farm bill, Lucas pushed the 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.
Under the EQIP program, producers pay for projects on their land to preserve soil or water and enhance wildlife, and the government provides matching funds to help pay for the projects. If EQIP is not fully funded, producers will be unable to take on conservation projects to preserve soil and water.
Lucas was successful in his efforts to provide additional EQIP funding, as the farm bill includes $9 billion for EQIP over the next 10 years. But now these funds are in jeopardy.
Along with EQIP, Lucas' bill also sets aside the farm bill funding for the Farmland Protection Program, which protects prime farm acreage threatened by urban development, and the Grassland Reserve Program, which protects natural or restored prairie and grasslands. Under the three programs, the administration has proposed using $150 million of this year's funding alone for other uses.
Lucas said the accounting stunt proves that securing agriculture funds for producers doesn't end when a bill is signed into law.
“I thought my toughest battles for this funding were behind me, after fighting to include funds in the final version of the Farm Bill to fully fund conservation programs, including $9 billion for EQIP,” Lucas said. “But those who write the regulations for these laws have proven once again that the devil is in the details.”
Lucas is chairman of the Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Credit, Rural Development, and Research.