Just in time for Christmas: Congress approves 2020 funding and a tax package

It’s still not a “done deal” as we go to press, but—after months of delays—it looks like Congress has finally figured out a way to compromise on a measure that will not only fund the government but change some tax laws that are important to agriculture.

Congress must pass the measure, plus a second one for security-related departments and agencies in order to avert a government shutdown. The government has been operating at fiscal year 2019 spending levels under a succession of short-term continuing resolutions.

If everything goes as expected, there are several provisions that are helpful to those who were hard hit by bad weather this year. The agreement includes an additional $1.5 billion in disaster relief for farmers hit by this year’s bad weather on top of the $3 billion passed by lawmakers in June.

Agreement was also reached on a tax package that would revive the expired $1-a-gallon tax credit for biodiesel and renewable diesel and extend it through 2022. The tax credit has been expired since 2017.

The “deal provides the policy certainty that the biodiesel industry has been seeking to support investments and continued growth of production,” said Donnell Rehagen, CEO of the National Biodiesel Board. “NBB and its members are grateful that Congressional leaders are providing a positive signal before the year’s end.”

The tax package also includes extensions for tax breaks that subsidize cellulosic biofuels, electric vehicles and alternative fuels equipment.

Rural electric cooperatives got provisions included to ensure that they don’t lose their tax-exempt status when they accept disaster assistance or receive government assistance for broadband expansion.

Under provisions of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, rural electric co-ops lose their nonprofit status if more than 15% of the revenue comes from federal, state or local governments. Government grants and subsidies are deemed to be nonmember income.

The tax provisions will be added as an amendment on the floor to the massive, 1,773-page domestic spending package that was released Dec. 16.

In a victory for Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, the legislation doesn’t have a House-passed provision that barred the department from relocating the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

The department had adequate administrative and salary funding to carry out the move without additional funding in the bill, said North Dakota Republican Sen. John Hoeven, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee.

The bill does contain a provision barring U.S. Department of Agriculture officials from moving agencies to another mission area within the department; Perdue initially sought to move ERS from the research, education and economics mission area to the Office of the Chief Economist. He subsequently dropped that plan.

The bill would give a fresh boost to rural broadband deployment by providing USDA $550 million in a third tranche of funding for the ReConnect land and grant program that was created in 2018. The department recently began distributing the first awards from the program.

The original $3.05 billion in disaster funding was intended primarily to cover damage from hurricanes and wildfires in 2018 as well as flooding in the spring of 2019 and wasn’t enough to cover subsequent losses, said Hoeven.

The bill’s provisions include one that would compensate farmers for quality losses as well as reduced yield. Another would make it easier for farmers to qualify for aid when they had experienced drought.

“Between the low commodity prices, the trade issues, and this weather there is just more hardship out there, and the $3 billion would not have been enough,” Hoeven said. “This is a tough stretch for our guys, as you know. We need to get them through it.”

Farmers can qualify for payments under the Wildfire Hurricane Indemnity Program Plus regardless of whether they purchased crop insurance. If their crops are insured, they can get WHIP payments to supplement their crop policies up to 95% of the insured value. If they didn’t buy insurance they can get payments worth up to 70% of the crop’s value.

The $1.5 billion in additional aid was funded from money that wasn’t spent under a 2017 disaster bill.

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To address staffing shortages at the Farm Service Agency, the bill includes $35 million for the hiring of farm loan officers, county office trainees and county office employees.

The joint explanatory statement that accompanies the bill says lawmakers are concerned about the number of vacancies in the department and orders USDA to provide a report within six months providing detailed staffing levels for FSA as well as all research and marketing agencies, Rural Development, the Food and Nutrition Service, and the Foreign Agricultural Service. “While funding levels continue to increase for many agencies, staffing levels continue to decline,” the statement says.

The bill earmarks $3.2 billion to programs at USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and NIFA, including the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, which would get a small, $10 million increase to $425 million. Formula research funding for land-grant universities, which is distributed through NIFA, would be flat at FY19 levels.

The bill also gives USDA six months to finalize a rule that would allow dairy producers to transition animals into organic production only once. Both the Senate- and House-passed versions of the FY20 funding bill for USDA contained a similar provision. USDA took additional comments this fall on a proposed rule that was issued by the Obama administration.

The measure includes funding for several small programs authorized by the 2018 farm bill, including:

  • $20 million for dairy business innovation initiatives.

  • $1 million for healthy fluid milk incentives projects.

  • $5 million for mitigation banking.

  • $5 million for micro-grants for food security.

Editor’s note: Agri-Pulse Editor Sara Wyant can be reached at www.agri-pulse.com. Agri-Pulse Executive Editor Philip Brasher co-authored this article.