Water, taxes head CFBF Washington agenda

Issue Date: May 26, 2010
Christine Souza

At the U.S. Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C., California Farm Bureau Federation First Vice President Kenny Watkins, left, talks to Interior officials about the need to increase California's water supply, as Farm Bureau members Ryan Mahoney of Solano County and Gail Brumley of San Joaquin County listen.

Focusing on water supplies, estate taxes and other issues critical to the success and economic sustainability of California farmers and ranchers, more than two-dozen Farm Bureau leaders from California spent three days in Washington, D.C., last week, meeting with members of Congress and agency officials.

One top issue on Farm Bureau's to-do list during the organization's annual National Affairs and Leadership Farm Bureau trip to Washington was water, which is on the minds of farmers statewide. Farmers who buy water through the Central Valley Project—operated by the U.S. Department of the Interior—are slated to receive a 40 percent water allocation this year.

Farm Bureau members visited with U.S. Department of the Interior officials, where the farmers shared concerns about California's short water supply.

CFBF First Vice President Kenny Watkins, who farms in San Joaquin County, discussed the need for long-term water supply relief with a number of Interior officials including Letty Belin, counselor to Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes.

"We need to talk about storage, to come up with a real solution," Watkins said.

Belin replied, "Storage is a necessary piece of the long-term puzzle, but it isn't everything. We are doing everything we can to make it work."

Regarding issues involving the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, Watkins stressed to Interior officials that the goal should be a healthy fishery and that how that's achieved should not be mandated, and should not include taking farmland out of production to create habitat.

"What it boils down to is stakeholders getting together and working through the problems," Belin responded. "We're trying to get all of the science that we can."

Farmer Gail Brumley of Escalon, who teaches agriculture and environmental issues at a Central Valley junior college, called for immediate assistance when it comes to water.

"Yes, we need to be working on a long-term solution, however we must have short-term actions to allow us to continue farming in the near-term," said Brumley, who farms walnuts, almonds and rice with her husband Phil. "Arriving at a solution in 20 years does not do us any good if farmers have been put out of business in the meantime."

Modoc County farmer Tom Stewart, who farms within the Klamath Reclamation Project, reminded officials that his region is also hurting for water.

"This year, we (in the Klamath Basin) are looking at 30 percent deliveries and for a small community, it is a hardship. It is hard to make plans. It is tough to deal with and tough to run a business like that," Stewart said.

The Farm Bureau leaders also discussed their concerns about an ongoing effort in Congress to amend the federal Clean Water Act, called the Clean Water Restoration Act, which would expand federal regulation to all waters of the United States.

"It is a big deal as it relates to water rights, because if you expand federal jurisdiction on the landscape, the potential conflict that we're going to have about more activities looking like a point source or a pollutant exacerbates itself," said Elisa Noble, CFBF director of livestock, public lands and natural resources.

Regarding the estate tax, Farm Bureau members urged lawmakers to consider the highest level of exemption possible, plus exclusion of farm assets from the tax as long as the farm operation remains in the family. While the estate tax remains zero for this year, if Congress fails to legislate a new estate tax before 2011 it will return to the pre-2001 rate of a $1 million exemption for individuals ($2 million for couples), with the balance taxed at 55 percent.

In December, the House passed a bill that would permanently extend the 2009 estate-tax level, which was a 45 percent tax over the $3.5 million exemption. The Senate has yet to act.

"We support the highest exemption level possible, but that alone won't cut it for many farming families in California," said Josh Rolph of the CFBF National Affairs Division.

While on Capitol Hill, Farm Bureau leaders asked representatives to support H.R. 3524, the Family Farm Preservation Estate Tax Act, a bill introduced by Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Napa, that would create a temporary tax exclusion of farm assets as long as they remain as a viable farm operation. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is working with Farm Bureau and a large coalition of agricultural groups to develop a similar bill that would be considered in the Senate. 

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Napa, center, talks with Farm Bureau members Monica Rosenthal of Lake County, left, and Tom Estes of Mendocino County, right, at Thompson's office in Washington. Thompson has introduced an estate tax reform measure that Farm Bureau supports.

"It's all about saving the family farm," CFBF Second Vice President Jamie Johansson said, adding that the proposed bill would make it easier to pass a family farm from one generation to the next by deferring estate tax liability until the land is sold for a use other than farming or leaves the family's ownership.

Johansson called a meeting with Feinstein's staff "a valuable experience." While meeting in Feinstein's office and with Rep. Thompson, Farm Bureau members thanked the congressional representatives for working toward solutions to the estate-tax issue.

During the trip, Farm Bureau members also met with officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Fish and Wildlife Service, Environmental Protection Agency, Trade Representative and the Food and Drug Administration. The meetings presented opportunities for Farm Bureau members to learn about the agencies' roles in issues that affect them, including immigration reform, the 2012 Farm Bill, food safety and trade.

On the final day of the visit, Farm Bureau members met with congressional representatives and staff, visiting a total of 19 California representatives' offices.

"Representing Farm Bureau, we have a single advantage. Not only do we have a strong presence in Washington, we do a great job of putting a personal face on our issues," said Jack King, CFBF National Affairs manager. "It is essential that legislators and agency officials hear directly from agricultural producers speaking about what is important in their lives, such as keeping their businesses in operation. Nationwide in Farm Bureau, we probably bring more people to town than any other group."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.