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Owens addresses agriculture, immigration at Rotary lunch

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WATERTOWN - The spring lunch of the Watertown Noon Rotary at the Rutland Congregational Church featured a special guest appearance by Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, who dropped by to sample some home cooking and talk about legislative issues important to the north country while Congress is in recess this week.

Following a brief update on events in Washington, questions about agriculture, immigration, cross-border fees and Fort Drum’s future were among those answered by Mr. Owens, who may even have learned a thing or two during his visit.

“Most important lesson ... pick up the pie first,” he said, alluding to the unusual protocol of the meal, which included chicken, biscuits, mashed potatoes and all the fixings.

Mr. Owens said he expected the farm bill to come before the Agricultural Committee by May 15, in accordance with the wishes of committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and to make it through the committee process with few changes.

He predicted the bill likely will meet significant challenges on the House floor, however.

According to Agweek.com, Mr. Lucas is planning to cut $38 billion in spending over 10 years, a measure that is supposed to make the bill more palatable to the Republican-controlled House, but a large cut in food stamp funding will make it hard for House Democrats to support the bill and complicate the chances of making a conference with the Senate.

Moving on to the 844-page immigration bill introduced two weeks ago, Mr. Owens said he would not vote for any bill that does not address farm concerns. He is seeking feedback from farmers, especially dairy farmers and orchard owners who offer seasonal work.

Mr. Owens also voiced staunch opposition to any legislation that would impose border fees on Canadian citizens traveling across the border into the United States by vehicle or on foot.

A measure included in President Obama’s fiscal year 2014 budget to help reduce the national deficit would direct the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection to conduct a study that would assess the feasibility and cost of establishing and collecting such a fee at the northern and southwestern border.

The idea also has met opposition from Rep. Peter F. Welch, D-Vt., and Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who said the plan would be “dead on arrival” in the Senate.

Officials fear the measure would hamper the flow of business traffic from Canada that helps bolster the north country economy.

Opening the question-and-answer period, Jay M. Matteson, Jefferson County agricultural coordinator, asked whether the guest worker provision in the immigration bill was meeting any stumbling blocks in Congress.

Mr. Owens said his office has been receiving letters from the left and right side of the political spectrum expressing concerns the provision provides amnesty to workers who have immigrated illegally and could take away American jobs.

The bill’s passage depends on “how badly my Republican colleagues get beat up on the amnesty issue,” Mr. Owens said.

“Why is it important to include a path to citizenship with the guest worker visa?” Mr. Matteson asked.

With the percentage of people in favor of the bill more than 60 percent nationwide, people seem to respond to the provision, Mr. Owens said.

With 11 million people in the country illegally and about 10 percent of that number farmworkers, “we’ve got to deal with it,” Mr. Owens said.

He said the path to citizenship was a reasonable approach, provided immigrants abide by the law and pay taxes.

Farmers have been asking for a guest worker program for a long time.

Sen. Schumer, one of the bill’s authors, said the biggest issue farmers complain about during his visits upstate is their inability to get workers.

The agricultural theme continued with a question about whether the region is doing an effective job representing itself to other areas of the country.

Kevin J. Jordan, executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County, asked whether upstate New York was well-known around the country for agriculture.

“New York is known for New York City. ... We need to do a better job talking about our strengths, marketing ourselves to the rest of the country,” Mr. Owens said.

Carolyn D. Fitzpatrick, chairwoman of the Jefferson County Board of Legislators, asked about Fort Drum’s future.

Mr. Owens said the post would remain stable and may even grow slightly, according to what he has heard from Department of Defense officials and appropriations senior staff members.

He has heard no rumors about contractions at the post and there is also little likelihood of a base realignment and closure this year, Mr. Owens said.

Questions also came up about the sequester, which Mr. Owens said would continue for the foreseeable future; health care reform, which he said was receiving mixed reviews depending on “where I am geographically in the district”; diminishing funds at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency and rumors of a retroactive payment plan piled on top of a $1.1 billion reduction in Medicaid funding, which Mr. Owens said he would have his staff investigate.

The question-and-answer period then petered out, with the audience seemingly satisfied for the moment with its meal and representative.

It was a sentiment Mr. Owens appeared to share.

“I had the best lunch,” he concluded.

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