Farmers bring key issues to Congress


Issue Date: February 18, 2015
By Dave Kranz
California Farm Bureau leaders meet with Rep. David Valadao, second from right, at his Capitol Hill office. The CFBF group includes, left to right, director Tony Toso of Hornitos, First Vice President Kenny Watkins, director Joe Valente of Lodi, director John Ellis of Hanford and Administrator Rich Matteis.
Photo/Dave Kranz
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, center, talks to a gathering of California Farm Bureau leaders in Washington, D.C. Other participants include, from left, state Sen. Tom Berryhill, CFBF President Paul Wenger, Rep. Jeff Denham, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop and Rep. Doug LaMalfa.
Photo/Dave Kranz

With a new, Republican-led Congress now in place, California Farm Bureau Federation directors visited Washington, D.C., last week to encourage action on key issues affecting the state's farmers and ranchers.

In meetings with House leaders, members of the state's congressional delegation and administration officials, the Farm Bureau representatives stressed goals including reform of immigration and tax policy. They called for actions to address the immediate impact of the California drought and the long-term need for water security. They described how a labor dispute at West Coast ports has affected rural economies, and encouraged ongoing efforts to reduce regulatory barriers to agricultural trade.

CFBF President Paul Wenger said he came away from the trip with the feeling that progress was possible on at least some key issues in coming months.

"I think there's an opportunity to do something on immigration and on tax policy, too," Wenger said. "But whatever gets done will probably happen in the next six to eight months."

That's because presidential politics will likely begin to eclipse congressional activity by the end of the year, he said, as leaders of both parties establish positions for the 2016 election.

American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman, in a talk to the CFBF board, said there are several issues that "might be ripe for bipartisanship, and immigration is one of them." Both the administration and moderates in Congress want to work on immigration reform this year, he said, describing agricultural organizations as "united" in their desire to achieve a workable immigration program for farmers, ranchers and their employees.

Currently, Congress is focused on responding to President Obama's executive actions on immigration, through legislation to strip funding for the actions, according to AFBF policy specialist Kristi Boswell.

"Until that's resolved, the substance of immigration reform won't go forward," Boswell said. "We have to keep the pressure on for true, substantive reform."

During congressional office visits, Farm Bureau representatives made the case for a more-comprehensive approach to immigration policy that expands on the enforcement-only approach favored by some members of Congress.

Victor Tognazzini, a CFBF board member who grows vegetables in Santa Maria, said he had had to disk crops under in recent years because he couldn't hire enough people to harvest them, and has left 20 percent of his land unplanted due to chronic shortages of employees.

Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, told a group of CFBF leaders that he has been meeting with fellow Republican representatives, encouraging more of them to consider immigration solutions that would benefit agricultural employers and employees.

On tax policy, the Farm Bureau group pressed for comprehensive reform that addresses individual as well as corporate taxes. Of particular interest is the need to restore tax provisions that expired at the end of 2014, such as the Section 179 small-business expensing rule that sets the maximum deduction at $500,000, rather than the current rate of $25,000.

Pat Wolff, tax policy specialist for AFBF, said Farm Bureau will press Congress to act quickly to reinstate the Section 179 provisions while it works on broader tax reform. Late last week, the House passed legislation to make the Section 179 provisions permanent.

Farm organizations also oppose tax changes proposed by President Obama in his State of the Union address, which would broaden the impact of estate and capital-gains taxes.

Wolff gave those proposals little chance of passage in the Republican-controlled Congress, and said the House could vote on repeal of the estate tax this spring. The administration will oppose repeal, she said, but the vote would give House members a chance to "go on the record" as favoring repeal.

On water issues, the CFBF delegation advocated for flexibility and efficiency to allow water-project operators to maximize supplies during the drought years that continue to plague California.

"It's difficult to suffer from the drought and then to suffer further from the opportunities that run by," said CFBF board member and Fresno County farmer Dan Errotabere, referring to recent incidents where storm flows have been allowed to drain to the ocean in an effort to benefit protected fish.

In a meeting with the CFBF delegation, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said his panel will take up water issues this year.

"We will work on water, and we will work on California water," Bishop said.

During the same meeting, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, outlined his priorities for the coming year, which include reform of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission; oversight of programs included in the 2014 Farm Bill; oversight of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; and efforts to improve agricultural trade.

Several Farm Bureau directors described the harm inflicted by the labor dispute at West Coast ports, which has delayed shipments of California agricultural products (see story). Conaway urged farmers and their organizations to press the president and his administration to act to end the dispute.

Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, said the port dispute will have "a dramatic effect on the national economy" if not resolved soon.

On another trade matter, a group of CFBF directors met with officials at the German embassy, discussing European Union trade positions that restrict a number of U.S. agricultural exports to Europe.

(Dave Kranz is editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at dkranz@cfbf.com.)

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