- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Tucked inside the massive new farm bill, which House Republican leaders are speeding to the floor, is a controversial 15-cent fee the government will collect on every Christmas tree cut in or imported into the U.S.

Dubbed the “Christmas tree tax” by opponents — a term to which industry backers vehemently object — it is an idea that’s been kicking around the Capitol for years, but finally got enough support to land inside the 959-page farm bill.

The bill would also clear the way for industrial hemp pilot programs in states where growing the plant is legal. For years, federal law has almost entirely prohibited any experimentation with industrial hemp for fear that it could be used as a cover for growing marijuana, which authorities say is indistinguishable when grown in the wild.

“From Oregon to Colorado to Kentucky, voters across the country have made it clear that they believe industrial hemp should be regulated as an agricultural commodity, not a drug,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, Oregon Democrat and one of a handful of lawmakers that was pushing for the change in federal law.

The five-year farm bill is the chance for Congress to pick winners in the agriculture industry and to set broad policies.

This year’s bill makes some major changes to agriculture subsidies, ending most of the direct-payment system that pays farmers whether they grow or not, and replacing it with a crop insurance program that is meant to step in when crop prices drop.

The bill also covers the food stamp program, and this latest version preserves the program mostly intact, though with changes to prevent lottery winners from still collecting checks, and cracking down on states that artificially boost some recipients’ checks.

Those changes save about $800 million a year.

The bill also ends a controversial program that saw the Agriculture Department work with Mexico to promote food stamp use among Mexican citizens living in the U.S.

House Republicans had wanted to cut five times as much out of the food stamp program, but Senate Democrats balked. Advocates for the poor said the cuts are still too deep.

Overall, the bill will reduce federal spending by $16.6 billion compared to what the old policy would have spent over the next decade.

Republican leaders will put the bill on the House floor Wednesday, less than 48 hours after it was released to the public. They hope to win enough Democratic votes to pass the bill, sending it over to the Senate where it is expected to see a bigger bipartisan vote.

“It’ll pass,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, assured reporters on Tuesday.

Conservative interest groups have lined up against the measure, saying they’ll dock lawmakers who vote for it in year-end legislative scorecards.

“It’s a ‘Christmas Tree’ bill where there’s a gift for practically every special interest group out there with a well-connected lobbyist, including the fresh-cut Christmas tree industry,” the Club for Growth, a free market advocacy group, said in its email to lawmakers.

The Christmas tree assessment was first raised three years ago by the Obama administration, which issued a proposal to charge the 15-cent fee. A public backlash forced them to halt the proposal, but the new farm bill lifts that stay after 60 days.

The National Christmas Tree Association said it was about time, adding that most of their members support it.
“The program is designed to benefit the industry, especially small family farms,” NCTA said in a statement this week. The group said it doesn’t expect producers to pass the fee on to consumers.

But critics have said that since the government is imposing the fee, even over the objections of some tree farmers and importers, it amounts to a tax. They said the industry tried to impose the fee on its own members voluntarily, but too many of them balked, so Christmas tree leaders turned to the government to impose it for them.

The money will go to fund a government-run board of industry representatives, and is designed to promote American Christmas trees.

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