U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) touted bipartisan success stories, in particular the recently passed Farm Bill, during a visit to Cortez Wednesday afternoon.
At a community meeting held at the Dolores Water Conservancy office, he said a key component for the success is ignoring the divisive rhetoric of the extremist on both ends of the political spectrum.
“I urge people to not get distracted by the left-right screaming match on TV,” he said. “That never solves problems.”
Bennet helped ensure that Colorado priorities were in the final version of the Farm Bill, including a strengthened crop insurance program, improved conservation easements, reauthorization of the livestock disaster program, important forestry measures for reducing the risk of wildfires, and the continuation of Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) for Colorado counties.
“It provides hardworking farmers and ranchers with the stability and certainty they need to plan for the future,” Bennet said.
The Farm Bill package is for five years and comes with $956 billion in funding. It cuts $23 billion in the budget towards deficit reduction “after Democrats and Republicans came together to force a consensus,” Bennet said.
While the Farm Bill is for five years – considered “a miracle” – the PILT funding is only authorized for one year, which is a problem, Bennet said. PILT compensates counties with large tracts of federal land that do not provide property taxes for local services. For 2014 Montezuma County’s share was $164,243, Dolores collected $140,749 and La Plata gained $607,959.
“These funds are essential because local counties providing services on federal lands, from fire search and rescue, fire fighting on forest lands by local departments, and maintaining roads for forest access,” he said. “We will have to continue to fight for that funding next year as well.”
Other highlights touched on by Bennet:
The bill reduces red-tape and program duplication as well, dropping from 23 programs to 13.
The Conservation Easement program was changed so owners can count the value of the land, “allowing more farms to passed on to the next generation,” Bennet said.
The bill reauthorizes stewardship programs between local forest managers and county governments to thin forests at urban interfaces and for wild fire mitigation.
Chuck McAfee, of Lewis, urged more flexibility with the Conservation Reserve Program to allow limited grazing, an issue Bennet he has heard elsewhere in the state.
“I request that the CRP program adopt different options like introducing grazing to make the land more healthy,” McAfee said.
Young and beginner farmers received more benefits under the bill. Next generation farmers are eligible for farm insurance discounts. Also organic farmers have more access to cost saving farming programs, as well as farms growing specialty crops.
“The younger generation is more interested in organic agriculture, and specialty crops,” Bennet said.
The bill provides improved access to insurance and more favorable lending terms target smaller operators who diversify, for example running a small herd of cattle and harvesting from an orchard.
Also, insurance programs were strengthened for drought-stricken areas, like southwest Colorado, who lose crops more often.
Changes to the food stamp program, a part of the Farm Bill, will not affect Colorado beneficiaries, Bennet said. Also an effort to provide low-income families on public assistance better access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
A lot of the changes depend on successful implementation at local farm service offices and the USDA.
“If something is not working, let me know about it,” Bennet said.
Bipartisan support on a bill that protects Hermosa Creek north of Durango, while allowing for multiple use, has a good chance to pass, Bennet said.
“Congressman Scott Tipton carried in the House. It is our way of saying we can come together at a local level,” he said. “It is a good example of how to get it done.”
Local farmer Lauri Hill thanked the senator for his efforts to require labeling for genetically modified foods. Bennet said countries around the world are insisting on the labeling, but more scientific information is needed on the topic.
Bennet noted the economy has not been rebounding as well as in the past. In a recovery higher Gross Domestic Product used to mean more jobs, but that is not the case lately.
“Family income has fallen by $800, and we have the worst income inequality since 1928. My conviction is that education is the answer,” he said.
He cited Mercury Payments in Durango as a example of innovation of a younger generation.
“They are expanding their operations in one of the worst recessions and employ 200 Fort Lewis College graduates,” Bennet said
Julie Kibel, a Dolores County Commissioner, thanked Bennet for supporting an alternative conservation programs to listing the Gunnison Sage Grouse as an endangered species.
“Dolores county has stepped up to the plate putting in protection measures, but we need help to prevent the bird from getting listed,” she said.
Bennet agreed, saying listing the bird would “breed mistrust and have a negative impact” on local communities.
“We are trying to convince the U.S. Fish and Wildlife to give us more time to show the work you have done to protect the bird,” he said.
Bennet closed by promoting support for a bipartisan immigration bill. He praised some Republicans who understand that a fair immigration bill is essential for the agricultural economy.
“I negotiated agricultural worker provisions, and it is the first time it has been endorsed by growers and farm workers,” he said.
He responded to critics who say securing the border should be a bigger priority than immigrant farm workers, saying that problem has been addressed.
“We went from $8 billion towards border security to $46 billion. We’ve added 21,000 border agents and an additional 700 miles of fence. That is not an excuse for not passing immigration reform,” Bennet said. “It is important for our growers and vital for the agricultural economy in our state.”
A immigration reform bill passed the Senate by 70 votes. But a House version has not yet been voted on.