Welcome to the February edition of the Sprouting Change Nourish Colorado policy blog. By joining us here every month, you can find information about farm and food system policy at the state and federal level, plus fun and interesting little tidbits of information that I’m sure you’ll find just as fascinating as we do.
The state legislature remains on their COVID hiatus until Tuesday, February 16th. But that doesn’t mean nothing is happening. Most visibly, the six-member Joint Budget Committee (JBC) has continued to meet to address state fiscal concerns and develop the budget for the 2021-2022 fiscal year (July 2021 – June 2022). The budget process involves several steps beginning with receiving the Governor’s budget, reviewing each department’s budget and budget requests, holding a hearing the department leadership, and then figure setting where JBC member decide what they can and want to fund for the year. There are a few other pieces to the process, but that’s the basic process.
The JBC begins in November and typically delivers the budget to the legislature for their consideration in late March or early April. Each house of the legislature then spends a week considering any changes they want to make to the budget (typically not very many survive), then the budget goes back to the JBC to be finalized based on anything that passed the legislature, and finally to the Governor for his signature – important side note: the Colorado Governor does not have line item veto authority. He pretty much has to take or leave the budget as a whole.
Currently, the JBC is conducting department hearings and engaging in some figure setting. Before they can finalize the budget, the JBC will wait for the March revenue estimate to get a good picture of the revenue amount they’ll have to work with in the budget. So far, earlier revenue estimates have been better than anticipated in the face of the pandemic. However, the JBC had to cut the budget so drastically near the end of the last fiscal year due to the pandemic, there remains a lot of ground to make up. Keep your fingers crossed for good news.
The rest of the legislature have been working on their initiatives that will be introduced when they return. While legislative leadership wants to limit the amount of legislation and other issues they have to address, in an attempt to keep the amount of time they spend in session, you can be sure all legislators have issues they want to pursue. While the legislature is constitutionally required to finish 120 days after they start (in early January), they have leeway during a public health emergency, such as we’re in right now, to not have those 120 days be consecutive. Currently, and this is subject to change, the legislature is planning on working into June, rather than finishing in early May as is typical. Stay tuned to this space for updates on the issues coming our way once the legislature reconvenes next week.
As you are probably aware, Congress is on track to pass President Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. This plan is in addition to the $900 billion plan passed by Congress in December. The American Rescue Plan is still under some negotiation, but includes $1,400 direct payments to many Americans, enhanced unemployment benefits by increasing the payment to $400 from $300, rental and utility assistance, support for child care and health insurance, aid for state and schools, support for vaccine distribution and testing, and, importantly for us here, food assistance. The plan extends the 15% increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP – formerly food stamps) from June through September, an additional $3 billion for the Women, Infant, Children (WIC) program, and $1 billion in nutrition assistance for U.S. territories.
You’re probably asking yourself why we’ve put this information in the state section, rather than the federal section. The answer is because a large coalition of organizations, convened by the Blueprint to End Hunger and focused on food security and nutritious food access, will be submitting a letter to Governor Polis outlining what we believe should be the food system and food access priorities for the American Rescue Plan funding coming to Colorado. Generally, we are asking for an investment of $70 million in the farm and food system to support our farms, farmworkers, and nutritious food access for Colorado’s kids and families. A survey conducted by Hunger Free Colorado in December 2020 told us that 38% of Coloradans are experiencing hunger, up from 30% a few months before, and that number is over 50% for communities of color, and 64% for people with disabilities.
Clearly, we require a significant investment into our entire farm and food system to recover from the pandemic and set our state up for success moving forward. The $70 million investment includes priorities such as school meals, WIC produce boxes, supporting the charitable food system including food banks and food pantries, direct cash assistance to immigrant families, support for P-EBT, direct support for farmers and farm workers, and supporting development for a regional food system infrastructure. The pandemic has demonstrated that our food system, while efficient, is very obviously not equitable and is not resilient. Funding these priorities will begin to help address both of those deficiencies.
The Biden Administration
President Biden and his staff have wasted no time in beginning to put together his cabinet and their staff within the government agencies, as well as addressing many issues through executive orders. President Biden’s nominee to run the United State Department of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, recently cleared his first hurdle when his nomination was approved by the Senate Agriculture Committee (more on this committee below). While Vilsack’s nomination initially raised a few eyebrows among more reform-minded individuals (he ran USDA under President Obama), there has been a general consensus that he can hit the ground running.
Additionally, many of those concerns have been alleviated by the appointments of a knowledgeable and highly skilled staff. Some examples include appointing Stacy Dean (formerly Vice President for Food Assistance Policy at the Center on Budget & Policy Priorities) as Deputy Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services (FNCS), and appointing key staff such as Katherine Ferguson, originally from Colorado and former ag committee staffer for Senator Bennet, as Chief of Staff and Kumar Chandran, most recently Policy Director at FoodCorps, as Senior Advisor for Nutrition, both in the Office of the Secretary.
In addition to re-working the USDA, with the new Congressional session underway, the composition of the Senate Agriculture committee has altered, and they look like they are ready to make some noise. The new committee chair is Debbie Stabenow (D- MI) who has long been a champion of the farm and food system, and particularly now urban agriculture. She replaces Pat Roberts (R-KS) who chose not to seek reelection in 2020. In addition to flipping to a Democratic majority, the Democrats added Cory Booker (D-NJ), Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM), and Raphael Warnock (D-GA). Warnock, as you probably know, is one of the two democratic senators elected from Georgia in the January special election that gave the Senate majority to the Democrats (by the thinnest of margins – Vice President Kamala Harris, who is by virtue of her position also the Senate President, is needed to break any 50-50 ties). The Republicans added to the Ag committee are Roger Marshall (R-KS) and Tommy Tuberville (R-AL). And, importantly for Colorado, Michael Bennet (D-CO) remains on the committee and will continue to be a strong champion for Colorado agriculture and nutritious food access. Time will tell what this committee prioritizes, but the membership is a strong indicator that farm and food system reform will be on the agenda.
Right now, Congress is busy preparing for President Trump’s second impeachment trial, getting President Biden’s cabinet picks confirmed, passing the American Rescue Plan, and planning their agenda. Nourish is supporting the work of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition in ensuring food security and farmer relief – including support for EBT online at direct markets and direct relief for small and BIPOC growers as well as local food intermediaries – are included in the Rescue Plan.
Also, just a quick note for the hopefully near future, it appears that Child Nutrition Reauthorization may finally be on the Congressional agenda – and possibly soon. CNR includes all things pre-k to k-12 school and summer food as well as the WIC program. Keep your eyes on this space for all CNR news, including the Nourish Colorado CNR agenda.
You can always stay up to date on farm and food legislation at the state and federal levels by visiting our bill trackers. You can also find the bill tracker links, and additional information as well as previous blogs, on the policy page of our website.