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Owens, Doheny voice views about dairy insurance

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After a week of touring dairy farms in the north country, Matthew A. Doheny’s congressional campaign issued a “prescription pad” to fix the agriculture industry Friday.

Cut red tape and taxes, said Mr. Doheny, a Watertown Republican. Expand free trade. Allow guest workers to stay in the country for longer periods.

But when it comes to the major issue that was just hashed out by the House of Representatives Agriculture Committee — a new margin insurance program for dairy farmers his Nov. 6 opponent, Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, supports — Mr. Doheny hasn’t made up his mind.

“I’m not saying I wouldn’t support it,” Mr. Doheny said.

The new program would provide payments to farmers if the price of milk falls a certain level below their costs, but in exchange, farmers would have to agree to limits on production, to help stabilize prices.

The current Milk Income Loss Contract program provides payments to dairy farmers if the price of milk falls below a certain level.

He said he wanted to see what “shakes out in terms of compromise.”

Indeed, the margin insurance program is far from a done deal, despite its committee recommendation. Opposition from House Speaker John Boehner could change the game for dairy producers dramatically.

Mr. Boehner, R-Ohio, said the dairy system is “Soviet-style” and the changes the House Agriculture Committee recommended last week made it even worse, according to The Hill, a Washington, D.C., publication that covers Congress.

Mr. Owens, who voted to move the bill forward, said Mr. Boehner is wrong in his communism comparison.

Dairy farmers have the choice to opt out of the proposed margin insurance program and go their own way, Mr. Owens said.

“To me, that makes the system much more capitalistic in its approach,” he said. “I specifically pushed for that in the bill.”

A similar bill passed the Senate with 65 votes, Mr. Owens said. If the bill passes the full House — an uncertain prospect, given Mr. Boehner’s opposition — the chambers will need to iron out differences in their respective bills.

If the bill passes the full House, the two chambers will also have to reconcile their treatment of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps.

The House Agriculture Committee approved about $16 billion in cuts over 10 years. More and more people are relying on food stamps in the country’s economic downturn; the program’s rolls increased to 45 million in 2012, from 27 million in 2007, roughly doubling the cost of the program to $72 billion annually.

But Mr. Owens said the House cuts’ magnitude could hamper the program’s effectiveness; he voted for an amendment that mirrored the Senate’s proposal, which would cut the program by about $4.5 billion over 10 years. The House version, which would require tightening of eligibility for food stamps, would throw 2 million to 3 million people off the food stamp rolls, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank.

“To the extent that there’s misuse, that needs to be corrected,” Mr. Owens said. “But at the same time, if you have people who are clearly in need of food, you have an obligation to provide that food.”

He said the bill would allow the government to consider regulations about the health of food purchased with food stamps so that government assistance isn’t buying pork rinds and doughnuts.

If the bill passes the House, Mr. Owens said, the bill will go to a joint conference committee of senators and representatives, and a figure somewhere between the $4.5 billion and $16 billion will be ironed out.

For his part, Mr. Doheny said the program needs to be reformed, but added: “To be honest with you, it’s not about the number itself.”

He said the food stamp negotiations shouldn’t take place in the same bill as vital agricultural subsidies and programs — ostensibly, they’re in the same bill because food stamps are used to purchase agricultural products, though there’s no regulation that requires purchases of American goods.

“To have food stamps as part of it doesn’t make any sense to me,” Mr. Doheny said.

For now, though, it is. Mr. Doheny said he’ll have much to ponder about the bill, and his timing could be fortuitous. Mr. Boehner will attend a fundraiser in Lake George for Mr. Doheny in August.

“I look forward to staying on top of (the food stamp) situation,” Mr. Doheny said.

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