Legislative Committee Update – March 29, 2021

By Clint Bain and Neil Burnette

We hope this legislative update finds you all well.  With COVID-19 continuing to impact our work environment, we are doing our best to serve NASCOE members and production agriculture.  Recently, the Department of Agriculture announced our offices would be operating under limited capacity.  We continue to urge our leadership to make decisions regarding office status based on data in the local area as opposed to government wide mandates.  It is our belief that the new team leading USDA understands the importance of allowing our county offices to operate and service our customers.

In addition to COVID office concerns, we have heard about various states lowering annual employee ceilings.  Despite FSA receiving a budget increase this year, some state offices have cited “budget cuts” as the reason for lowering the total number of county office employees NASCOE leadership is working to better understand the budget challenges our agency faces for the current fiscal year. FSA employees continually respond to every challenge as they do their part to support American farmers.  Over the past two years, county office employees have worked tirelessly implementing trade adjustment and COVID relief payments.      

The chart below provides details about recent FSA spending levels. These funding levels can be found in the annual Agriculture Appropriations report.  The funding chart appears as the Comparative Statement of Budget Authority (CSBA).   

FPAC Business Center (including transfers)FSA Salaries and Expenses (including transfers)
FY 2021 = $291,960,000FY 2021 = $1,437,038,000
FY 2020 = $280,186,000FY 2020 = $1, 414,214,000
FY 2019 = $292,659,000FY 2019 = $1,375,177,000

NASCOE has been diligent showing members of Congress the need to provide funding increases year after year.  To assist Congress with preparing this year’s budget, NASCOE visited with the House Agriculture Chairman and spoke about staffing concerns before the House Agriculture Sub-Committee on Nutrition and Forestry. 

Please keep us updated should you hear about employee ceilings in your state being lowered based on funding reductions.  NASCOE leadership shares the frustration and concerns of those states that had a reduction in staffing.  We will continue to work with the new administration and use every avenue available to seek resolution to these issues.

American Rescue Plan Act

NASCOE Legislative Co-Chairs
Clint Bain and Neil Burnette
March 10, 2021

The House approved the $1.9 trillion COVID Relief Bill which is now headed to President Biden for signature. The following provisions are a few of the items contained in the bill:

AGRICULTURE The measure would appropriate $4 billion to the Agriculture Department to purchase and distribute food and agricultural commodities, including seafood, and to make grants and loans to small and midsized food processors and distributors.  

The package also would appropriate such sums as may be necessary for loan modifications and payments to farmers and ranchers who are members of groups that have been socially disadvantaged in Agriculture Department programs. The department could pay as much as 120% of each such farmer or rancher’s debt on loans it made or guaranteed.

It would provide $1.01 billion for grants and loans to improve land access for socially disadvantaged farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners, as well as scholarships, outreach, financial training, and other technical assistance. A portion of this funding will support the activities of one or more equity commissions that will address racial equality issues within the Department of Agriculture and its programs.

FEDERAL EMPLOYEE LEAVE – The measure would provide $570 million for an Emergency Federal Employee Leave Fund to be administered by the Office of Personnel Management. The funds could be used to reimburse federal agencies for emergency leave taken by civilian employees and postal workers which include the following purposes: employee is experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and seeking medical diagnosis, obtaining a COVID-19 vaccine, subject to quarantine orders, or looking after children participating in virtual learning classes.

Paid leave could not exceed 600 hours per employee or $2,800 for a biweekly pay period, and it would have to be used by Sept. 30, 2021. Any leave provided to an employee would reduce the total service used to calculate retirement benefits.

TAX PROVISIONS – The bill provides another round of direct payments of as much as $1,400 for an individual, $2,800 for joint filers, and $1,400 for each qualifying dependent. The payments would begin to phase out for individuals with adjusted gross incomes of $75,000 and would be zero for AGIs of $80,000 or more. Those amounts would be doubled for joint filers. Payments would be based on 2019 or 2020 tax returns.

NOT INCLUDED – Senate Democrats did not include the House passed $15 an hour minimum wage provision.

NASCOE President’s Message on USDA Facility Staffing

As you may know, FPAC has issued updated guidance regarding COVID-19 staffing at all USDA facilities. The guidance calls for staffing in facilities at 25% of normal employee presence.  Understandably, NASCOE has received significant feedback from our membership on how this new guidance will impact our ability to meet customer demand. NASCOE has contacted USDA leadership about our concerns.  As with previous COVID-19 decisions, we have learned this will likely be implemented across the entire federal government.

The safety of our members will always be NASCOE’s number one priority.  Recent safety measures and office protocols implemented by county office employees has contributed to decreased COVID-19 cases. We believe county office decisions regarding safe staffing levels should be made locally based on sound science and established criteria.

Please know that our work with USDA is focused on identifying any opportunity to keep our offices staffed with appropriate safety measures, which will allow our employees to service production agriculture.  In the meanwhile, NASCOE is working to resolve concerns about deficient supplies of laptops and low internet access available for telework.  The support and feedback you provide to NASCOE during this challenging time is greatly appreciated.

Annual Appropriations and COVID Relief Signed by the President

Clint Bain and Neil Burnette
December 28, 2020

Last night, President Trump signed the annual appropriations and COVID relief stimulus package.  The signing of this measure provides a full year spending allocation for government agencies and averts any further shutdown concerns. We highlighted key aspects of the USDA budget in our December 22nd News Flash.

The COVID Relief Bill also makes available significant additional funding for farmers as referenced in our December 21st News Flash.  Farm Bureau has recently released their assessment of forthcoming programs.  If you wish to read their analysis please click here.  Note:  while some groups are offering their interpretation of provisions, FSA will release final rules and regulations for the programs in the near future.

Legislative News Flash – Federal Appropriations and COVID-19

Clint Bain and Neil Burnette
December 21, 2020

The House of Representatives and US Senate announced agreement to provide additional COVID-19 assistance and the fiscal year 2021 appropriations measures.  We expect one additional continuing resolution providing the time needed to send these bills to the President’s desk.  We do not expect a government shutdown.

The COVID-19 assistance details are posted below for your review.  We will send a second update outlining the annual funding levels provided through the appropriations bill.

Covid-19 Agriculture Assistance – $13 billion total

  • $11.1875 billion for agriculture producers, growers, and processors
  • Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) payments for the 2020 crop year – option for 2018 and 2019 sales – (cattle included)
  • Up to $1 billion for livestock and poultry contract growers
  • $20 million to improve and maintain animal disease prevention and response capacity
  • May extend the term of a marketing assistance loan
  • No less than $1.5 billion to purchase food and agricultural products, including seafood
  • Up to $200 million to support timber harvesting and hauling businesses
  • May make payments to producers of advanced biofuel, biomass-based diesel, cellulosic biofuel, conventional biofuel, or renewable fuels with market losses due to COVID-19
  • May make recourse loans available to dairy product processors, packagers, or merchandisers
  • $100 million to support the Farm Bill’s Specialty Crop Block Grant Program
  • $100 million for the Farm Bill’s Local Agriculture Market Program
  • $75 million for the Farm Bill’s Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach Program
  • $400 million to pay for milk to be processed into dairy products and donated to non-profit entities (food banks, feeding programs, etc.)
  • Establishes a Federal livestock dealer trust to ensure that livestock producers are paid for their animals
  • $60 million to make facility upgrade and planning grants to existing meat and poultry processors to help them move to Federal inspection
  • $28 million to be distributed as block grants to state departments of agriculture for use to support existing farm stress programs

*Additional funds were provided to domestic nutrition programs.

2020 NASCOE Convention Update

Greetings NASCOE Members,

As you are likely aware, the NASCOE Board of Directors recently met via conference call.  The sole item of business was to consider how we should move forward with the 2020 National Convention in light of the current COVID-19 pandemic.  NASCOE finds itself in an unprecedented situation and the safety of our members and partners must be our number one concern.  Additionally, NASCOE also has an obligation to limit the potential liability to our association.  After much consideration, the Board of Directors voted to cancel the 2020 National Convention in Savannah, GA.  This decision was not taken lightly, and we want to personally thank all the individual Board members (two from each state) for their preparation, diligence, and careful weighing of the choices. 

NASCOE’s National Convention is primarily our annual business meeting.  While we won’t able to conduct that face-to-face this year, we still plan on having an annual meeting in some fashion.  Research has begun on alternatives to allow us to have a virtual meeting.  The alternatives would facilitate our elections, area breakouts, committee updates, and as many of the business functions of the convention as possible.  We’ll be engaging membership in how best to accomplish this and welcome your suggestions.

One can hardly count all the benefits that NASCOE brings, but fellowship and community are toward the top of the list.  We know that it is disappointing that we won’t be able to see each other, share stories and enjoy each other’s company.  However, these challenges won’t last forever and before you know it, we’ll all be together in Fort Wayne, IN for the 2021 convention.  We will also get to experience the hospitality of Georgia, as they will now host us in Savannah in 2022.

Thank you all for everything you do and please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions or comments.

Sincerely,

Rick Csutoras and Curt Houk
National Convention Co-Chairs

Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act

Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act or the (CARES Act)

Neil Burnette and Clint Bain, Legislative Committee Co-Chairs

In response to the national crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress has passed a massive stimulus package assisting both businesses and individuals. The stimulus package will impact the Farm Service Agency and our NASCOE membership.

Below is a brief summary of these provisions:

  • The bill provides $3 million for hiring temporary staff and paying for overtime expenses at the Farm Service Agency to prevent, prepare for and respond to the coronavirus. 
  • The bill includes a $14 billion boost in funding authority for USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation. 
  • The legislation provides $9.5 billion for assisting livestock operations, including dairy farmers, as well as fruit-and-vegetable (specialty) crop producers. Farmers who sell directly to farmers markets, schools and restaurants would also be eligible for aid.
  • The bill allows the Secretary of Agriculture to extend the term of a marketing assistance loans for any commodity to 12 months.  The authority will expire September 30th, 2020.
  • The stimulus package provides payments to individuals based on your 2018 or 2019 adjusted gross income. The maximum amount you can receive is $1,200, or if married filing jointly, $2,400 per couple. That amount phases out for single filers with an AGI between $75,000 and $99,000, joint filers with an AGI between $150,000 and $198,000 and heads of household with an AGI between $112,500 and $146,500. Those who qualify for the $1,200 credit will also receive an additional $500 for each qualifying dependent 16 years old or younger. The stimulus money is technically a tax credit for 2020 that will be paid out, in advance, as soon as possible.  Individuals with direct deposits established with the IRS could see these deposits within a couple of weeks.

The Legislative team has been closely following this process and we will monitor how the department responds to these opportunities as a result of the increased funding.  We will provide additional information as it becomes available.

President’s Message for March 22, 2020

Greetings NASCOE Members,

It’s hard to describe what a confusing and stressful time these last couple of weeks have been for all of us.  The news concerning the COVID-19 Pandemic has turned ever more alarming and I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that this has created lots of anxiety.  We find ourselves worried about interactions with our producers, our co-workers, and even our high-risk family members.  As USDA has been balancing service to our producers with employee health and safety, concerns have rapidly mounted.  We have been working with FSA leadership to share these worries and issues and would like to take some time now to share where we are today.

The absolute greatest concern we all have is for the health and safety of ourselves, our families, and our producers.  All week long, CED’s and PTs have been calling, e-mailing, and texting NASCOE representatives conveying concerns about interacting with the public in our offices and we in turn have shared these concerns with management.  The Department initially responded by implementing a screening tool to try and assess our producers before they entered our offices.  As this became inadequate, we shifted to limiting visitors.  Now, beginning this week, FSA will be prohibiting visitors from entering any USDA Service Center.  As the calls for social distancing increased, NASCOE also heard worries about whether employees would be safe amongst themselves in the same building.  We shared these concerns with leadership as well.  Beginning this week, FSA will be limiting the number of employees in the service center to decrease our possible exposure with each other.  Alternative working arrangements may be made for employees who have dependents at home or who certify to being high-risk.

Of course, prohibiting visitors and limiting employees in the Service Center influences customer service.  Agriculture is integral to our survival and it is critical that USDA continues to serve our producers to the greatest extent possible.  We also know from feedback that we heard during the recent government furlough that everyone wants to continue to work rather than fall further behind.  To meet this need, the agency is authorizing FSA employees to telework in certain circumstances.  We know this involves being both telework ready and having meaningful work that can be done remotely.  Telework is relatively new to most of us and we know there are a lot of questions on how this will work.  Once again, we have been sharing these concerns with management.  New telework arrangements won’t be ideal or efficient, but they do present some opportunities to continue servicing our producers during this very tough agricultural climate.  More important, it is good to know we can service our producers and feel safer than we did a week ago.  For those employees who are directed to be out of the office but can’t telework, administrative weather and safety leave is available. 

Finally, the situation has been changing very rapidly.  We are aware that not every employee in every state is receiving the same message.  We have expressed to management the importance of consistent communication.  Last Friday, FSA held a conference call for all employee associations.  This call was very much appreciated by the NASCOE leadership.  NASCOE members should be receiving these notes via email shortly.  The agency has also committed to having more of these conference calls as the situation changes.  Questions about the new status of FSA employees are common and, in some cases, folks are still looking for answers.  In an effort to respond to our membership’s needs during this challenging time, NASCOE has put together a page on our website to provide information about policy that management has presented to state offices.  On this page you will find guidelines, notes, frequently asked questions, updates on agency actions and links to websites.  This page will be continually updated with new information.  You can find this website at:  https://nascoe.org/nascoe-covid-19-resources/

NASCOE stands ready to help its members and looks forward to hearing your comments concerns as this unprecedented situation moves forward.

NASCOE President Brandon Wilson Contact information

COVID-19 Impacts on NASCOE Events

Many of you have been watching the news and following the development of the Coronavirus, otherwise known as COVID‑19.  In just the last few days, we’ve seen many events get cancelled, such as the Farm Bureau Leadership Conference in Kentucky and the Houston Livestock show and Rodeo.  Sporting leagues are canceling games or ending their seasons early.  These cancellations are disruptive and inconvenient, but they are being cancelled out of an abundance of caution for everyone’s safety.  NASCOE and our affiliates are unfortunately required to make similar difficult decisions.

We encourage you to read the following important update on NASCOE Events from NASCOE President, Brandon Wilson.   

The NASCOE Leadership team anticipates updating membership with additional information as the status of the COVID-19 outbreak evolves.

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