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DENVER – As Congress moves to try and pass a new version of the Farm Bill with competing measures in the House and Senate, Colorado farmers and people who work with food stamp recipients are being cautious about what a final bill might bring.
The Republican-led House narrowly passed its version of the bill last week by a 213-211 vote, with Democrats unanimously opposing the measure and 20 Republicans voting against it.
The measure now moves on to the Senate, which passed a version of its own through committee in a 20-1 vote last week as well.
But there remain major differences between the two measures that are dividing lawmakers—some even from the same party—over passing a measure that typically passes with bipartisan support to shore up protections for farmers and their workers.
The House-passed measure implements a work requirement for those who receive SNAP benefits, or food stamps, who are able-bodied adults between ages 18 and 59. They would have to work or participate in job training for 20 hours a week in order to receive the benefits.
And the Senate version contains a facet that would legalize hemp—something that was inserted into the measure by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. The lone vote against the measure in the Senate Agriculture Committee came from Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley over concerns about CBD oils, which are derived from hemp—which does not contain the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, THC, in amounts that can get a person high.
In Colorado, which has a burgeoning hemp industry, farmers say Grassley is mischaracterizing the plant.
“The Senate version is a much better bill. It’s a compromise bill,” said Nick Levendofsky, the Director of External Affairs for the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. “It’s a great thing for states like Colorado and other states that are considering hemp production.”
“There’s virtually no THC. You can’t get high. You can’t get euphoric from it,” said Morris Beegle, the president of the Colorado Hemp Company.
But the Farm Bill has many more facets to it aside from the new inclusion of hemp legalization. The 2018 Farm Bill comes up for a vote as President Donald Trump implements new tariffs, some of which are already affecting U.S. farmers. In Colorado and the West, drought and hail storms have already ravaged many crops this year, and the House version would cap certain crop insurance payouts to farmers affected by such natural disasters—something Levendofsky said was farmers’ “No. 1 safety net.”
But perhaps the biggest and most controversial part of the bill involves food stamps under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program. Between 70 and 80 percent of the $860 billion Farm Bill typically is earmarked for the program, and there is a double-up food bucks program that can double a family’s food stamps if they buy fruits and vegetables.
“It helps families to eat healthier. It provides additional income to farmers,” said Marion Kalb, the food systems coordinator for Jeffco Public Health. "If you spend $5, you will receive an additional $5 to buy Colorado-grown fruits and vegetables, up to $20."
An estimated 500,000 Coloradans use SNAP, and Kalb says the average time someone typically stays on the program is 11 months.
But the work-requirement facet of the House bill has some in Colorado concerned.
“You need to document on a monthly basis that you are working 20 hours a week,” said Wendy Peters Moschetti, the director of food systems at LiveWell Colorado, a nonprofit that helps feed low-income Coloradans. “I believe that we already make it restrictive enough.”
Susan Grutzmacher, who heads Boulder County’s SNAP program, said the new requirements would cost counties money.
The House measure would also limit the ability of some families who qualify for other poverty programs to qualify for SNAP, though it earmarks $1 billion for work training programs.
Though some conservatives have praised the House bill because of the work requirements, others say they would like to cut farm subsidies even further, which has caused a split among some Republicans.
The Senate will take up its full measure next, which is bipartisan and budget-neutral, and if it passes, senators will have to come to a compromise with House lawmakers before sending the Farm Bill to the president’s desk. The current version of the Farm Bill expires in September. A previous attempt in the House to pass a version of the Farm Bill died in mid-May among Republican infighting.
Denver7's Blair Miller and information from The Associated Press contributed to this report.