Congress Set To Recess; Energy Bill, Ag Appropriations And AgJOBS Proposals Important For Industry

November 19, 2003 - 14:44

The 108th Congress is scheduled to wrap up its first session on Friday, November 21 (though there is some talk of it staying in session at least through the weekend) and not reconvene until January 2004. Upon reconvening, politics — in the form of the November 2004 president and congressional races — will likely take front and center stage. Some fear that the 2004 campaigns will so shift the focus from legislating that bills still on the table at recess stand little chance of serious consideration next year.

At press time, three pieces of pending legislation held great interest for the floriculture industry.

Energy Bill

A measure that seemed prime for passage was the energy bill, sponsored in the House by Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.). The bill has been described as the first major overhaul of U.S. energy policy in decades. House and Senate conferees finalized the language of the proposal Monday night, and it passed the House on Tuesday. Observers say the measure faces a more difficult road in the Senate, primarily because of a provision that would give gasoline additive producers some protection from liability lawsuits.

The 1,000-plus-page bill tax includes incentives for the oil, natural gas and coal industries; tax credits and incentives for developing renewable energy resources, including breaks for corn-based ethanol; loan guarantees for the building of a natural gas pipeline from Alaska to the Midwest; higher requirements for ethanol in gasoline; and a requirement for creation of nationwide electric reliability standards to prevent a repeat of the August 2003 blackout.

Backers of the bill say it will diversify the nation’s energy resources and create jobs. Opponents say the measure is laden with tax breaks for traditional energy industries and harmful to the environment.

The most important provisions in the energy bill for the floriculture industry are those that will affect natural gas prices, said Lin Schmale, senior director of government relations for the Society of American Florists (SAF). However, given the sheer size of the legislation, its impact on the floriculture industry is hard to predict, she said.

Agricultural Appropriations Bill

H.R. 2673, the agricultural appropriations bill, includes provisions that would help compensate growers for losses resulting from plant damage related to the Ralstonia solanacearum biovar 3 race 2 outbreak. R. solanacearum biovar 3 race 2, which causes wilting plants and abnormal yellowing of leaves, affected hundreds of greenhouses earlier this year when cuttings were taken from contaminated stock plants in Goldsmith Plants’ Kenyan facility and unintentionally introduced into the U.S. through routine shipping. The bacterial agent also was included in the U.S. Agricultural Bioterrorism Protection Act of 2002 as potentially causing a severe threat to plant health or products, because it can cause potato brown rot.

According to Schmale, the Ralstonia provisions in the agricultural appropriations bill essentially consist of language that urges the secretary of agriculture to establish a compensation program for affected growers. The compensation would be conditioned on Goldsmith and its insurers also making payments. The government wants some guarantee that these private parties will contribute, Schmale explained.

The agricultural appropriations bill also contains funding for the Floriculture and Nursery Research Initiative, designed by SAF and the American Nursery and Landscape Association (ANLA) to secure financial support for industry-important research through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service budget. The initiative funds long-term research on projects chosen to complement the industry’s privately funded efforts to reduce chemical usage; improve the post-harvest life of flowers and plants; develop disease-resistant and pest-resistant flowers and plants; find ways to control root diseases; support robotics research, with matching NASA funds; and control runoff from greenhouse and nursery production.

Congress directed funding for this initiative beginning with the fiscal year (FY) 1999 budget, and in FY 2003 $6 million was allocated. Language in the current version of the appropriations bill provides for this same level of funding for FY 2004, Schmale said. However, if the bill is subject to an across the board cut, this amount would decrease, she added.

At press time, the agricultural appropriations bill was headed to conference to resolve differences in the measures passed by each chamber.

AgJOBS

Finally, support continues to grow for The Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits, and Security Act of 2003 (AgJOBS), a comprehensive agricultural labor reform measure proposed as S. 1645 in the Senate and H.R. 3142 in the House. A recent count puts the number of co-sponsors as 45 in the Senate and 69 in the House. "The bill would pass if it came before the Senate today," Schmale said.

Essentially, AgJOBS would enable farm and nursery workers who lack proper work authorization to earn permanent legal status through prospective work and lawful behavior. The measure would also modify the current H-2A temporary and seasonal foreign agricultural worker program. Floriculture and agriculture industry groups support the measure, as do agricultural labor groups. Numerous newspapers have endorsed the bill.

Whether the bill moves forward quickly will be a political decision for its sponsors, Schmale said. The sponsors could try to attach the bill to an unrelated measure that is up for vote and likely to pass. Or, if the sponsors feel that attaching the bill to another measure might create bad feeling or a perception that it was pushed through too quickly, they could decide to wait.

Schmale stressed that a strong showing of co-sponsors is important for the bill’s prospects, especially if the measure is not addressed until after Congress’s recess. Both SAF and ANLA have sample letters to congress on their Web sites. SAF members should click on the "members only" part of SAF’s site (www.safnow.org), and follow instructions. ANLA has established a temporary site for non-members (http://capwiz.com/anla/home). Both sites enable the user to enter a zip code, locate the appropriate senator or representative, and generate a personalized letter.

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