Clock’s running out on farm bill, conservation fund. Now what?

Author: Marianne Goodland - September 27, 2018 - Updated: October 15, 2018

Harper Kaufman, co-owner of Two Roots Farm, works on a piece of ground in Missouri Heights near Aspen. (Associated Press)

The current farm bill expires on Sunday, and without a Hail Mary pass by Congress, there’s no chance of the 2018 version landing on President Donald Trump’s desk by then.

The same is true for permanent reauthorization and full funding of the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which helps pay for land conservation and outdoor recreation projects nationwide.

But all is not lost on either, according to Colorado’s U.S. senators, Democrat Michael Bennet and Republican Cory Gardner.

The farm bill, which would support agriculture for the next five years, passed the U.S. Senate back on June 28 on a bipartisan 86-11 vote, with support from both of Colorado’s senators. Meanwhile, the House version — HR 2, the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 — passed on June 21 by just two votes, 213-211. Not a single Democrat voted for the bill. Colorado’s seven-member House delegation voted along party lines.

> RELATED: Gardner: Progress on BLM move, farm bill and ‘we won’t give up’ on LWCF

After passage in both chambers, the bill went to a conference committee. And that’s where it still sits this week with the Sunday deadline looming.

The major sticking point is still insistence by House Republicans on enhanced work requirements for able-bodied adults who receive food stamps, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). That provision is a major demand by the Trump administration.

The Senate version didn’t include those SNAP changes because Senate Republicans acknowledged that had they added that in, they could not get the 60 votes they would need to get the bill through with a filibuster-proof majority, given the 51-49 majority held by Republicans in that chamber.

> RELATED: Colo. local officials urge reauthorization of land, water conservation fund

So what happens now that the current farm bill expires Sunday? Actually, the situation is not as dire as you might think.

According to Bennet’s office, the biggest items covered by the farm bill — food stamps, crop insurance and dairy support– will continue on. Crop insurance is permanently authorized with funding through the fiscal year that ends next October. Funding for SNAP has already been ensured through a continuing resolution, and milk supports have enough funding to keep going until December.

That’s the next, and most crucial, deadline facing Congress on the farm bill.

But what drops off the map when the farm bill expires Sunday: trade promotions for agriculture, for one. That could hurt farmers who are looking for expansion on commodity markets at a time when the markets are being negatively impacted by Trump’s trade war with China and other export markets, as well as a four-year dip in some commodity prices. In Colorado, corn crops are likely to take the biggest hit on loss of those trade programs, according to Bennet’s office.

Also, certain conservation programs will go on hiatus after Sunday. That includes conservation easements at the federal level, which protect environmentally-sensitive or habitat areas and which puts lands into 10 to 15-year time-out for development.

In the meantime, if Congress decides to do a short-term extension of the farm bill while the conference committee continues to work, Gardner said he would be supportive of that.

“There are still important programs that need to be reauthorized,” and the conference committee needs to get the bill done as soon as possible, Gardner told Colorado Politics.

Bennet told Colorado Politics Friday that between “a trade war and severe drought, Colorado’s farmers and ranchers need more certainty—not less. In the Senate Agriculture Committee, we crafted a truly bipartisan Farm Bill that received 86 votes on the Senate floor. We’ll continue our work in Congress in the coming weeks to send a strong, bipartisan Farm Bill to the President’s desk as soon as possible.”

Neither Gardner nor Bennet sits on the congressional conference committee.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), however, appears to be in a less-certain situation.

The LWCF is a federal program that provides funding for federal and state outdoor and recreation projects. The fund gets its money from federal oil and gas lease revenues from offshore drilling. Its recommended funding is $900 million per year, although it rarely gets the full amount.

LWCF grants have gone to more than 1,000 outdoor and recreational projects in Colorado. The Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife estimates state projects have won $147 million from the fund, with another $120 million awarded for federal projects.

There have been lots of bills proposed in Congress to fully fund and permanently reauthorize the LWCF, including one sponsored by Bennet and Gardner. That included omnibus spending bills for the Department of Interior, military spending and agriculture, but the fund never got inserted into those spending bills.

Hope now rests on a stand-alone measure, although the difference seems to rest on a measure from the House that just reauthorizes the program or one in the Senate that both reauthorizes and fully funds it.

Next Tuesday, two days after the fund’s authority expires, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will likely work on a bill sponsored by Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington state that would fully fund and permanently reauthorize the LWCF. The 11-10 committee includes Gardner, who is a cosponsor. Bennet, not on the panel, is also a co-sponsor.

A House version, sponsored by Republican Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, would permanently reauthorize the fund but splits the funding more evenly between state and federal projects. It also doesn’t fully fund the program. The Trump administration advocates for an $8 million annual appropriation for the program, but that’s far short of the $900 million the program could be using.

So what happens when the program expires Sunday? The Congressional Research Service (CRS) said the LWCF can continue to operate but will no longer have the authority to collect those offshore oil and gas revenues. The LWCF has about $40 billion in the bank with about half of that already appropriated for existing projects. The rest “is to remain credited to the fund until appropriated or otherwise reduced by the enactment of new legislation,” the CRS said.

The offshore revenues would go into the Treasury’s general fund instead of to the LWCF. According to an LWCF advocacy group, more than $22 billion has been diverted to the Treasury in this manner during the program’s 50-year history

Existing projects would continue to be funded, but for those planning for future and long-term projects, the lapse will cause a delay in putting those projects into the pipeline, according to Bennet’s office.

In a statement to Colorado Politics, Bennet said the “pending expiration of a widely popular program like LWCF demonstrates just how broken Washington is. I’ll keep working across the aisle with my colleagues in the Senate to fully fund and permanently reauthorize this critical conservation fund.”

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland is the chief legislative reporter for Colorado Politics. She's covered the Colorado General Assembly for 20 years, starting off in 1998 with the Silver & Gold Record, the editorially-independent newspaper at CU that was shuttered in 2009. She also writes for six rural newspapers in northeastern Colorado. Marianne specializes in rural issues, agriculture, water and, during election season, campaign finance. In her free time (ha!) she lives in Lakewood with her husband, Jeff; a cantankerous Shih-Tzu named Sophie; and Gunther the cat. She is also an award-winning professional harpist.