MARSHALL - Count U.S. Sen. Al Franken among senators whose frustration over the lack of a farm bill is close to boiling over.
Franken, D-Minn., spoke with Minnesota reporters Thursday and discussed his continuing push for a new five-year bill. He said he would like to see the new bill included in the final budget package, which, of course, continues to be hotly debated as the "fiscal cliff" deadline nears.
"This whole year, it's been a top priority of mine to get a farm bill done," Franken said. "The farm bill is obviously very important to Minnesota. One out of every five jobs in Minnesota is tied to agriculture, and I've been going all around the state talking to farmers and they say they want a bill, they need a bill, so they can do some planning and have some certainty."
Lawmakers from farm states have been urging leaders to get a new bill done to avoid tax increases and spending cuts at year's end. The Senate in June passed a bipartisan farm bill with 64 votes that Franken said saves $23 billion in the budget that could be used for deficit reduction and still provide a strong safety net for farmers. The House, however, has not passed a bill.
"Because it saves money in the budget, it really is all the more reason it should be part of any end-of-year package that addresses the 'fiscal cliff,'" Franken said.
Franken's most recent push for a new farm bill includes a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
He also reached out to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, urging him to work with the White House to get a new farm bill passed.
Tim Gerlach, executive director of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, called agriculture one of the few bright spots of the nation's economy, as it creates jobs, reduces the trade deficit and "frankly, makes our country safer by producing food, feed and fuel right here at home. He said Minnesota is in the top six states in the U.S. for ag exports.
Gerlach said the farm bill, while utterly important to states like Minnesota, doesn't make much of a dent in the budget - one-quarter of 1 percent - but still provides critical services and comes in under budget.
"It's a very good model for federal policy," Gerlach said. "Passage of a 2012 farm bill, hopefully by Christmas, could yield somewhere between $25 billion to $35 billion in taxpayer savings, while still providing a strong safety net for our producers, and it has a robust conservation policy to protect the habitat that everybody cares about."
Franken said the House and Senate differ on cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which represents the largest piece of the farm bill. Overall, nutrition spending makes up 75 percent of the total budget for the farm bill.
"I think we cut $4 billion in the Senate (to SNAP), and there's quite a bit more in the House,"?he said. "I think in these negotiations we'll see something in-between the two figures. We have a soft economy that's getting better, but there are still a lot of people who need these systems. I want kids to go to school with a full belly, I want robust school food programs."
While there has been discussion of a one-year extension of the current farm bill, Franken doesn't see how that can be viewed as much of a victory.
"As far as I know, every farm organization that has weighed in on this doesn't not want an extension, they want a five-year bill," he said. "A one-year extension to me - we'd be doing all this over again in four months. We had a very good, bipartisan bill in the Senate, and in the House, they had a bipartisan bill passed out of their committee, and going back and doing it again in four months doesn't work for me."
"Everyone is fed up with the gridlock over this," Gerlach said. "Everyone believes this is important, it's got bipartisan support, it's just not getting done."
The farm bill expired on Sept. 30. If a new bill isn't passed, or if the current one isn't extended by January, a 1949 law would take effect that could potentially double milk prices.
"With everything at a standstill, it's having an effect on the dairy program," Franken said. "Prices have been high enough. This is a precarious position for dairy producers to be in."
Franken said it's possible the farm bill could get done independently from the other budgetary issues surrounding the "fiscal cliff."
"We could do this separately, and I think we can do it really fast," he said. "It could be a stand-alone package."