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Obama, in State of the Union, talks rural--once

By Larry Dreiling

Those who wanted President Barack Obama to speak about the needs of rural America got their wish in the State of the Union message Feb. 12.

Well, sort of.

In proposing new laws, offering tax incentives to employers, and hiring the longtime jobless, Obama said the "R" word.

"Let's also recognize that there are communities in this country where no matter how hard you work, it's virtually impossible to get ahead. Factory towns decimated from years of plants packing up. Inescapable pockets of poverty, urban and rural, where young adults are still fighting for their first job," Obama said. "America is not a place where chance of birth or circumstance should decide our destiny. And that is why we need to build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class for all who are willing to climb them."

It was the only time anything specific to rural issues was discussed in the address.

It was also one more time than Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida did in the Republican Party response.

Instead, it was left to leaders of farm groups and congressional agriculture committees to issue farm and rural-oriented responses.

In a statement, National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said his group applauded the administration's commitment to address the budget deficit through "both reasonable revenue increases and responsible spending reductions. In order for important programs to continue to be effective, another round of withering cuts through sequestration must be prevented."

The president of the American Soybean Association, Danny Murphy, of Canton, Miss., said, "We remind the president that the agriculture community came together to propose more than $23 billion in voluntary cuts within a comprehensive, five-year farm bill, which was passed by the House and Senate Agriculture Committees as well as the full Senate, yet did not see an opportunity for a vote on the House floor."

Growth Energy CEO Tom Buis said he applauded Obama for "outlining ambitious policy goals for renewable energy. Reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and foreign oil is imperative for developing a sustainable, cleaner fuel for the future."

What concerned congressional leaders the most was the effect the upcoming threat of budget cuts, called sequestration, would have on farm programs.

Without congressional action, federal agencies will begin implementing $85 billion across-the-board cuts to every agency and program in fiscal year 2013. The reductions are mandated with the Budget Control Act as the first part of $1.2 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years.

Senate Democrats have proposed a plan to avoid the sequester that relies on cutting defense and agriculture programs, as well as tax increases. The proposal recommends $27.5 billion in cuts from agriculture and another $27.5 billion from defense.

In a conference call with reporters following a Feb. 14 Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on disaster aid, chairwoman Debbie Stabenow of Michigan said while there remains bipartisan support for ending direct payments, there are further "very tough choices to make right now about possible meat inspections being eliminated for a period of time, or hundreds of thousands of jobs being eliminated from middle class families and all of the other things that could happen, it's been our judgment, and I support moving forward by eliminating direct payments as a way to satisfy the cuts under sequestration, save dollars.

"And at the same time, I have written this and negotiated this (disaster aid) provision to make sure that we are providing disaster assistance for 2012-2013 for our farmers and ranchers who really do need it, and so instead of having a direct payment given to folks who don't need it, we need to make sure that we are providing disaster assistance for those that do. We heard this morning in our hearing how critical that is for livestock producers, specialty crop growers and so on."

Stabenow said her committee is prepared to present a provision to fund disaster assistance and fill the holes in the extension that was passed on New Year's Eve.

"We are supporting all of agriculture, and not just part of agriculture, which means we would extend the funding for the energy title and certain specialty crop provisions, organics, the other provisions that did not get funded on New Year's Eve," Stabenow said.

"We also have written into the language that because agriculture is once again willing to take the lead on deficit reduction and that we are offering a very specific cut by eliminating direct payments, and that this equals more than we would be required to do under sequestration, that we would satisfy sequestration, the ten year sequestration, with this cut, so we would be guaranteeing that we would not have another cut in mandatory spending next year or the year after or the year after."

Stabenow's Republican counterpart, Ranking Member Thad Cochran of Mississippi, said cooperation between Congress and the Obama administration will be necessary to avoid "indiscriminate across-the-board cuts.

"We have to identify the priorities, and we have to work together whether we like it or not," Cochran said. "The administration can't just send out edicts. I look forward to working in a cooperative way, recognizing that any alternative to the sequester must have the collective involvement of both branches of government and not just one telling the other what needs to be done," he said.

"I'm disappointed that the Senate Democratic sequester package falls squarely on the backs of our defense and agriculture sectors. I understand that this is a political messaging bill, and I think it's unfair and unfortunate that the entire federal government looks to agriculture and national defense to pay for its debt. I look forward to working collaboratively with members of both parties to address the challenges facing the nation."

Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117, or by email at ldreiling@aol.com.

Date: 2/25/2013



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