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Congress works to finish farm bill, others big for SD

As House and Senate negotiators try to wrap up a farm bill, key issues at stake for the Dakotas are reauthorization of important crop insurance provisions and protections for ranchers and livestock producers. The bill would also reauthorize a dairy support program that expires at years end and helps control milk prices. In this photo, dairy cows are milked by the Rahlf brothers of Binford, N.D., in March. (AP Photo/Grand Forks Herald, John Brose)

By Henry C. Jackson

WASHINGTON — South Dakota has a lot on the line in Congress as the year comes to a close. House and Senate negotiators are trying to wrap up a farm bill that could provide much-needed relief to ranchers and protections to farmers.

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And another House-Senate committee is trying to hammer out a compromise on a water bill that would have wide-reaching effects in the state.

The Senate is also considering a defense authorization bill that would fund the type of long-range bombers that are based at Ellsworth Air Force Base.

“Everything we’re dealing with has pretty significant consequence right now,” said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.

At the top of the list is the farm bill, where negotiators have struggled to blend a House version that sharply cuts food stamp funding and a Senate version that doesn’t.

The bill contains dozens of elements that could affect South Dakota. But the delegation is perhaps most concerned about restoring federal support to livestock operations as ranchers try to recover from the October blizzard that killed thousands of livestock.

Because there is no farm bill in place, ranchers have received no federal funds.

Thune said he is more optimistic than he was that negotiators can thrash out an agreement before Christmas.

“If we don’t get something done by the end of the year, it puts a lot at risk,” Thune said. “My sense is that, with the differences, it’s fixable.”

Thune’s House colleague, GOP Rep. Kristi Noem, shares his belief that an agreement can be reached before the end of the year. Noem is on the team negotiating an agreement.

Over the next month, South Dakota lawmakers will be closely tracking two other large bills — the defense authorization bill, which the Senate is considering, and the water bill negotiations between the House and the Senate. Thune said he viewed a vote for the defense authorization bill as a vote of support for Ellsworth.

“That is something we’ve been working on for a very long time,” he said.

Noem said she is also proud of provisions in the bill she has worked on that would address sex offenses committed by service members.

That includes language that would provide better, more timely information to military commanders and another provision for more training on the issue.

The water bill could also have a big impact on South Dakota. Lawmakers are pushing for a provision that would require earlier notification from the Army Corps of Engineers if they plan to release water in the event of a flood, and another provision that would stop the Corps from charging some South Dakota residents for access to water. Both are the subject of negotiations.

The congressional delegation expects to be busy the rest of the year beyond just the legislation in negotiation.

Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson, as chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, is playing an important role as Congress considers passing new sanctions against Iran. Thune said he is deeply engaged in budget negotiations and studying the issue of tax reform for next year. Noem said she will continue to push legislation she has introduced that deals with child trafficking.