- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 23, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The state House’s budget leader says he wants to reassure South Carolina farmers devastated by October’s flooding disaster that the Legislature will help them out.

Lawmakers must help farmers survive direct crop losses estimated at $376 million, said Ways and Means Chairman Brian White. But he is not yet proposing a specific amount for the state to pay. Federal aid is still possible, he said.

“They need to know there’s somebody behind them,” White, R-Anderson, told The Associated Press after announcing his push for a Palmetto Farm Aid bill. “We’re going to do something to help out the No. 1 industry in South Carolina. It’s the backbone of our state.”

Earlier this month, hundreds of farmers packed the Statehouse to beg Gov. Nikki Haley to ask for federal money to offset losses. But the Republican governor has refused, saying farmers shouldn’t be treated differently than other businesses beyond what’s already available, such as subsidized flood insurance.

Haley has instead asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to expedite insurance payments to farmers. Underinsured farmers shouldn’t be bailed out, her office has said.

But GOP Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers says those payments - even for farmers with top-notch insurance - won’t come close to covering their losses, which didn’t stop with the initial flooding.

While the Oct. 2-5 storm that dumped 2 feet of rain on parts of the state did the bulk of the damage, the continued rainfall worsened the problem, as crops rotted in the fields, Weathers said.

The estimated losses include $330 million worth of fall crops destroyed or damaged in the field at harvest time and $46 million in winter crops that can’t be planted in the muck. They follow summer crops lost to drought, he said.

Farmers’ annual operating loans are coming due Dec. 31, said State Farm Bureau President Harry Ott.

White said he’s stunned by Haley’s position. He worries family farms won’t be able to plant crops next year and will be forced out of business.

“We give away hundreds of millions in incentives every year to other corporations. Now we have farms here at home that have been here for generations, and the governor’s saying, ‘Too bad. You made a bad business decision,’” he said. “It was a tragedy. That’s not a bad business decision. That’s an act of God.”

While the state Senate’s study panel on flood costs urged Haley to seek federal aid for farmers, White’s push for state aid is far from certain.

Any help for farmers will be considered “along with the many other needs of our people,” Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, said Wednesday, adding he’s eager to hear details.

“I grew up on a family farm and I know how important the agricultural sector is to our state’s economy,” he said.

The federal budget Congress passed last week includes $300 million in federal disaster aid for South Carolina and other states. How much will come to South Carolina is unclear. Haley must first submit her request.

Haley previously asked the state’s congressional delegation for $140 million to help poor homeowners, many of whom had no flood insurance.

Asked for a response to White’s proposal, a Haley spokeswoman did not directly address it or farmers.

“In the wake of historic flooding, the governor and Team South Carolina immediately went to work with federal, state and local officials to take care of everyone who was impacted,” Chaney Adams said. “But we know there are still people struggling, who have homes and businesses to rebuild.”

Adams said that’s why Haley launched the One SC relief fund and requested federal money to make homes “safe and livable.”

Earlier this week, One SC announced awarding $500,000 to 13 charities in its initial round of grants to help rebuild or remove mold from about 350 homes.

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