Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Divided PA lawmakers argued over and helped craft farm bill headed for Trump’s signature

By Tracie Mauriello

Originally published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

WASHINGTON – Pennsylvania lawmakers had a hand in crafting the sweeping $867 billion farm bill that is awaiting President Donald Trump’s signature.

The bill, which lays out the country’s food, nutrition, agricultural and conservation programs for the next five years, was approved by the House 369-47 Wednesday and sent it on to the White House.

U.S. Rep. Glenn “G.T.” Thompson was deeply involved as vice chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, chairman of the Nutrition Subcommittee, and one of the negotiators on the bicameral conference committee that hammered out the differences between House and Senate versions.

“I’m real pleased” with the final bill, said Mr. Thompson, R-Centre.

Cows on the 100 year old dairy farm of Andrew Henry, 37, on Friday, March 30, 2018 in Knox, Pa. Dean Foods, a major distributor, has cancelled contracts at nearly four dozen dairy operators in Pennsylvania including Henry. Henry has signed a new contract with Schneider’s Dairy and will switch on April 1.

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., isn’t. He was among 13 to vote no in the Senate on Tuesday. Most other Pennsylvania lawmakers voted yes with U.S. Reps. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, and Scott Perry, R-York, voting no. U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Hazleton, did not vote.

Mr. Toomey preferred a farm bill that established new work requirements for SNAP recipients and lifted restrictions on domestic production and sale of refined sugar.

Instead, the bill “makes no attempt to curb taxpayer-funded handouts or reform the broken sugar program,” he said. “Further, efforts to establish a reasonable work requirement for adult, able-bodied food stamp recipients with no dependents, were abandoned. American farmers, consumers, and taxpayers deserved better.”

Like Mr. Toomey, Mr. Thompson also wanted to expand limited work requirements for SNAP participants, but they faced pushback from Democrats like fellow Agriculture Committee member Dwight Evans, D-Philadelphia.

The Republican proposal amounted to “a social experiment on the backs of poor people,” Mr. Evans said in an interview Wednesday. “I didn’t come [to Washington] to do more harm to people.”

Republicans had wanted to add work requirements for able-bodied SNAP recipients and to close a loophole that allows states to waive those requirements in areas with high unemployment rates.

Mr. Thompson said other measures in the bill incentivize work in other ways. One limits waivers that allow people to temporarily receive benefits even if they don’t meet existing work requirements. Under federal law, a state can extend benefits to 15 percent of its caseload that otherwise would be ineligible. Mr. Thompson’s measure, which passed as part of the farm bill, reduces that to 12 percent.

Another Thompson provision in the bill funds state-based workforce development programs that meet local employment needs, removes participation barriers by subsidizing child care and transportation, and pays a portion of new workers’ wages until they are fully trained.

Mr. Thompson also fought for a provision that will create a federal database of SNAP participants to prevent them from receiving benefits through more than one state.

His fingerprints also are on a measure to make permanent the existing Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentives, which allows recipients to stretch their SNAP benefits further when they use them to buy fresh produce or milk.

“The nutritional benefits are incredibly important and, quite frankly, this will be important for our dairy products. Dairy is our No. 1 agricultural commodity in Pennsylvania, and our dairy farms in Pennsylvania are struggling,” he said. “This is good for SNAP recipients and also good for our dairy farmers.”

Activists who work on hunger issues said they are pleased the work requirements didn’t make it into the final bill but remain concerned that lawmakers left open the possibility for the executive branch to introduce them later.

They also are discouraged that it eliminates performance bonuses for states that reduce food stamp program administration error rates. Pennsylvania received $11 million in 2017 and 2016. Losing that funding could affect Pennsylvania’s ability to promptly assist the needy, said a spokeswoman for the Pittsburgh-based anti-hunger group Just Harvest.

Pennsylvania has more than 1.8 million food stamp recipients including more than 149,000 in Pittsburgh.

Pieces of legislation originally introduced by U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., also made it into the final bill. They include measures that increase funding for organic farming research; help farmers pay for conservation practices; cover the cost of harvesting, processing and transporting farmers’ direct donations to food banks; and reduce how often participants must reapply for the senior food box program, which provides non-perishable foods to low-income people ages 60 and up.

The farm bill also reauthorizes the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which originated in Pennsylvania in a 2004 state bill introduced by Mr. Evans, who was then a state representative. The program provides grants and low-rate government loans for developers to build grocery stores in underserved neighborhoods known as “food deserts.”

“That model came out of Pennsylvania and now it’s part of national policy,” that was reauthorized in the farm bill, Mr. Evans said.

Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: tmauriello@post-gazette.com; 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets. Staff Writer Kate Giammarise contributed.

First Published December 12, 2018, 7:49pm