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Federal Farm Bill -- A Good Deal for NJ, Despite Cuts to Food Stamps?

U.S. Rep. Jon Runyan, a Republican who represents parts of Burlington and Ocean counties, was one of three New Jersey supporters in the House. He called its passage “long overdue.”

"The Enemy of the Good"

“For once Washington didn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good,” he said. The legislation, he added, “supports the farmers who grow our food, while providing commonsense reforms and protections to nutritional assistance programs like SNAP. Is it perfect? Absolutely not. But farmers, ranchers, consumers and low-income families have been waiting three years for perfect."

Booker, in a statement on Tuesday, also praised the bipartisan effort and said that the bill “accomplishes some important goals, including new conservation investments that will protect farmlands from development and new incentives to encourage the growth of farmers markets and promote locally grown foods, as well as animal welfare measures.”

But the cuts to SNAP made it impossible for him to support the bill, he said.

“During a time when many families continue to struggle and there are still three job seekers for every job available, the more than $8 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which disproportionately impacts New Jersey, is simply unacceptable,” he said.

But even some of those on the left, such as the Center for Budget Policy and Priorities, a national liberal think tank, called the bill a solid compromise, especially in light of the more “draconian proposals” that had been on the table. Robert Greenstein, CPBB president, said in a statement on the organization’s website that the utility loophole is “difficult to defend” and that the proposed agreement will protect “tens of millions of low-income Americans who receive SNAP” from “the continuing threat that, in an adverse political environment, Congress could pass a farm bill that throws substantial numbers of them off the program and places barriers to SNAP in the way of many others.”

Ray Castro. senior policy analyst with New Jersey Policy Perspective, a liberal think tank, said the bill was a net gain for the state, even though the change in LIHEAP eligibility is likely to hit New Jersey harder than many of the other states, because its economy has lagged the others. There were 892,606 people enrolled in SNAP in New Jersey in October, according to federal statistics, up 4.1 percent from October 2012 up 1.8 percent over the previous month. Nationally, there were 47.4 million food stamp participants in October, down 0.3 percent from the previous year and 0.2 percent from the previous month.

New Jersey is an expensive state, Castro said, and the numbers show how widespread SNAP’s use has been. Despite this -- and possibly because of it -- Castro said he agreed with CBPP that failing to pass the compromise bill could leave food stamp recipients in greater potential peril.

“Most of the program has been maintained and the draconian work requirements (included in the earlier House bills) were never accepted,” he said.

The LIHEAP provision, he said, was an obvious target because it was “hard to rationalize.” The program allowed New Jersey to estimate utility costs for low-income residents whose utilities were included in their rent, streamlining the application process and also increasing SNAP payments to some residents.

Not a Loophole

Adele H. LaTourette, director of the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition, however, said the utility provision was not a loophole or “backdoor” into the program. People still need to be eligible for benefits to qualify for SNAP, she said, and any talk of a loophole “is a smokescreen.”

“Given the fact that food pantries already are running out of food and have never seen more desperate straits, this is not the time to be cutting what is supposed to be our nation’s first line of defense against hunger,” she said.

The proposed cuts are especially damaging, said Jim Weill, president of the national Food Research and Action Center, because of the expiration of supplementary benefits created as part of the federal stimulus bill.

“Demand at emergency food providers around the country has skyrocketed,” he said. “Now the farm bill, if passed, will considerably worsen the already bad situation for nearly a million households.”

Furey said he is sensitive to the concerns about the nutrition programs and, “as far as we in the agricultural community are concerned, we would have been happy to see level funding” for food programs. However, the bill needs to be considered as a whole, which means passing it so that programs that help the state’s farmers can remain in place.

Paul Hlubik, state executive director for the USDA Farm Service Agency, called the farm bill “pretty important here -- a net gain, a solid net gain for New Jersey.”

Overall, federal farm programs have doled out annually to state farmers about $4 million in commodities funding, which provides price supports for grains and other traditional farm crops through both direct payments and loans, $1 million for conservation programs designed to limit water use, and $2.5 million for disaster assistance, along with $10.5 million in loans for general operations and emergencies.

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