House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-TX), who released a draft bill Thursday, said "rural America is hurting." He said the draft farm bill will support farmers during a tough period and "remain faithful to the American taxpayer and consumer." He called work provision of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program a "springboard out of poverty to a good paying job." (Photo: USDA, 2017)

The House version of a new farm bill released Thursday would allow the secretary of Agriculture to declare a rural health emergency, making it easier to award grants and loans to community health facilities and telehealth programs.

The bill would also cut food stamps by about $93 billion over 10 years and require more participants in the nutrition program to be looking for work, training, or employed to remain eligible for benefits. The nutrition program, called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, currently serves about 40 million Americans. (Complete text of the bill is available in PDF format.)

The expanded work requirements would affect between 4 and 5 million participants, according to U.S. Representative Mike Conaway (R-TX), chairman of the House Ag committee.

Democrats are expected to oppose the changes.

The proposal is part of a 600-page bill released by the Republican controlled House Ag Committee.

In the health emergency provisions, the legislation gives the Ag secretary the authority to “prioritize certain rural health [funding] applications” within the Rural Infrastructure and Economic Development title of the bill. The bill doesn’t name any specific type of health emergency, but it does say that grants and loans to facilities providing “recovery services” would be a priority.

Last fall, President Trump declared opioid addiction to be a public health emergency.

The health emergency funding provision would affect Title VI of the farm bill – a relatively tiny 1 percent of the overall spending in the bill. But rural development groups watch the title carefully. Its broad mandate covers rural utilities like electricity, phone, and broadband; community facilities; small business development; waste water and water treatment; and similar programs. Trump proposed massive cuts in those programs in 2017, but they have not materialized in congressional spending bills.

The health emergency provision in the House farm bill would require the Ag secretary to specify the nature of the emergency for rural Americans and “identify the services and treatments which can be used to reduce those effects.”

Other highlights of the bill include the following:

  • Spending Cuts: The proposal trims farm-bill spending by about $100 billion over 10 years, compared to the last farm bill, passed in 2014. Total spending over a 10-year period would come to about $860 billion. About 90 percent of the spending cuts would come from the nutrition program.
  • Regional Organizations: The bill reauthorizes the Delta Regional Commission and the Northern Great Plains Regional Authority at reduced funding levels, the Housing Assistance Council reports. The Delta Regional Commission currently has an appropriation of $25 million. The bill caps the authorized funding, which must be appropriated in separate legislation, at $12 million. The Northern Great Plains Regional Authority is authorized at $2 million, but that agency (which had a $30 million authorization for 2018) has yet to receive a federal appropriation.
  • Rural Infrastructure and Economic Development: The bill continues funding for rural economic development priorities, including broadband infrastructure, rural water and wastewater systems and housing. The bill provides at least $150 million per year in appropriations for broadband grants and loans and at least $15 million per year for water programs.
  • Farm Programs: USDA spending for crop insurance and income support programs would continue with a few minor changes. Recently negotiated benefits for sugar and dairy producers are also included in the draft.
  • Conservation Programs: The draft does contain some significant changes to conservation programs. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acreage cap is increased from 20 million acres to 29 million acres during the next five years, though per-acre rental payments are decreased. The program prevents new sign-ups in the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the nation’s largest conservation program in terms of acres. Increased funding is provided for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).
  • Support for International Trade: The draft includes $255 million per year to develop sales opportunities for agricultural goods in international markets. Talks of a trade war with China have some farmers nervous about international markets.

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