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‘We’re trying to survive’: SC farmers in limbo as Congress spars over disaster relief

Hurricane Florence recovery more difficult for rural poor

Crystal Simmons, of Wallace, SC, was without water, electricity and phone service when flooding from Hurricane Florence washed out a road near her home.
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Crystal Simmons, of Wallace, SC, was without water, electricity and phone service when flooding from Hurricane Florence washed out a road near her home.

In 2015, Dillon County farmer Keith Allen suffered substantial financial and crop losses after historic floods swept South Carolina. By 2017, he thought he’d be able to recover.

But then, in the fall of 2018, Hurricanes Michael and Florence wiped out acre after acre of his family farm, including its soybean, cotton and peanut crop — a loss Allen estimated was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“No farmer that I know of is probably buying a new pickup this year because times are bad,” Allen, 63, a fifth-generation farmer from Latta, told The State on Tuesday. “We’re not buying a new set of tires for our tractors. We’re not spending on that, even if we needed it. We’re trying to cut costs this year. We’re trying to survive.”

Allen and other S.C. farmers have been waiting for government grants to help them rebound, but they’ve been stuck in politico limbo for months as Democrats and Republicans in Congress fight over a sweeping bill that would help a number of states recover from a variety of natural disasters.

With lawmakers in Washington, D.C., showing few signs they’ll be able to overcome a stalemate soon, frustrated elected officials in the South Carolina Legislature are stepping in to help save a big piece of a more than $40 billion agricultural industry.

Next week, when the full state Senate takes up the state’s $9 billion general fund budget, it will include a temporary law to cover $25 million in one-time costs for South Carolina farmers affected by the recent hurricanes. The S.C. Farm Bureau put that impact at a combined $205 million.

The state money will come with some caveats: If President Donald Trump enacts federal disaster legislation at a later date, the state would either pocket the $25 million or farmers would have to return the aid.

This is an unfortunate situation farmers have found themselves in,” state Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee, said during the Senate Finance Committee’s budget deliberations last week.

But the state’s decision to step in underscores the urgency of the situation, and the bleak outlook for congressional dysfunction to subside in the near future.

“Without some type of assistance ... there will be farmers who lose their farms and who will not be able to plant in 2019,” warned Harry Ott, head of the South Carolina Farm Bureau.

Fighting over Puerto Rico

Members of Congress in both parties and chambers agree about wanting to free up $3 billion in direct aid to farmers in southeastern states affected by recent hurricanes, flooding in the Midwest, tornadoes in Alabama and wildfires in California.

What’s keeping them from doing so is a disagreement about how much money to give Puerto Rico, still struggling to recover from Hurricane Maria in 2017.

In January, the Democratic-controlled U.S. House passed bills that would bolster a variety of programs in Puerto Rico in need of funding. Trump, however, is loath to spend more money on the U.S. territory, and has said he won’t sign any bill that offers more than $600 million for Puerto Rico’s lapsed nutrition assistance program, the amount the Republicans who control the U.S. Senate have pledged to support.

“Our friends on the other side of the aisle here in Congress are playing with fire,” said U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, a Charleston Republican. “They want an exorbitant amount (of) money for Puerto Rico that went far beyond what we were able to negotiate.”

Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of Seneca, a staunch Trump ally who enjoys a direct line to the president, suggested he was open to approving more Puerto Rico funding than fellow Republicans have proposed, if it means getting aid to South Carolina farmers.

“I told the White House that our people are suffering and we need to get something done,” Graham said.

‘Time to plant again’

Randy Russell, a veteran lobbyist who represents several agriculture groups, said Monday he expected Congress to reach an agreement before the week’s end, when federal lawmakers are set to begin a two-week recess: “It’s interesting how two week breaks tend to break the logjam on legislative activity,” Russell said. “My gut tells me they get something done before they leave.”

But as of Tuesday afternoon, a compromise was still at large. And given standard bureaucratic delays, the longer Congress waits, the greater the hardship for farmers around the country, Russell said.

As S.C. legislators think their farmers need at least $25 million to recover from the storms, Russell also conceded $3 billion likely isn’t enough money to go around among at least half a dozen states competing for financial assistance. He predicted another tranche of disaster relief funding would likely have to be approved later this year.

RJ Karney, the director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation, said stakeholders should at this point be satisfied with the $3 billion allocation and focus solely on encouraging lawmakers in Washington to strike a compromise.

“We keep hearing from our members, especially in the southeast — they are desperate for this money,” Karney said. “$3 billion is a strong allocation that would be extremely beneficial in regions ... Yes, more would be needed, but this is money that was agreed to at the congressional level, that the administration would be willing to sign.”

Democratic state Rep. Roger Kirby of Florence, hit hard by the hurricane bearing the same name, says Washington lawmakers must find a compromise quickly.

“A lot of farmers are saying, ‘I can’t go out and borrow my way out of this disaster. It’s time to plant again,’ “ Kirby told The State. “Without some idea that they can get some funds to try and help offset these dramatic losses, my fear is we’re going to lose a significant number of active farmers.”

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Emma Dumain works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she reports on South Carolina politics for The State, The Herald, The Sun News, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. She was previously the Washington correspondent for the Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier. Dumain also covered Congress for Roll Call and Congressional Quarterly.
Maayan Schechter (My-yahn Schek-ter) covers the S.C. State House and politics for The State. She grew up in Atlanta, Ga. and graduated from the University of North Carolina-Asheville. She has previously worked at the Aiken Standard and the Greenville News.
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