With the biggest legislative achievement of this Congress behind us – tax reform and the preservation of 1031 like-kind exchanges – there are other issues that are circling the congressional runway, jockeying for position and waiting to land. While not having a direct impact on the land professional, these broad issues could have far-reaching secondary impacts on land markets, real estate development and the economy.
Farm Bill Introduced But Passage Unlikely in 2018
A 2018 farm bill proposed by House Agriculture Committee Republicans passed by the Committee in April set the groundwork for tense debates on farmland conservation and forestry — and a much more partisan battle on nutrition assistance — as Congress tries to act before the current law expires at the end of September. However, this legislation is unlikely to pass in 2018 due to a decreasing window of opportunity to act on a very controversial proposal.
The bill strikes a good balance by holding the bill’s cost close to the total spending levels of the current version. Doing so allowed the Committee to protect crop insurance, tweak the safety net for cotton and dairy producers, and reform conservation and crop programs.
On the other hand, the committee wasn’t able to boost spending on farm programs that some groups say are more needed than ever, given the tough farm economy.
Significant changes in conservation programs reflected Chairman Conaway’s interest in seeing these programs work more effectively to preserve land that helps agriculture. The legislation would eliminate the Conservation Stewardship Program — the biggest conservation program in the country, with about 72 million acres enrolled — and move some of its initiatives to an expanded Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
The bill would allow an additional 5 million acres, 29 million acres in total, into the Conservation Reserve Program, which takes land out of production for 10-year periods.
On forest policy, the proposal would allow for bigger and faster forest-thinning projects, through a 6,000-acre exclusion from certain reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act, to reduce wildfire risk. It would also remove a requirement for consultation under the Endangered Species Act if a forest management project does not harm a listed species.
Infrastructure: All Talk and No Action?
Infrastructure effects all parts of the American economy, from good roads and clean water to flood protection and mass transit. Both President Trump and Congress have floated proposals that would provide resources to fix aging infrastructure, such as roads and water treatment plants; and develop new and transformative projects, such as modernizing the electrical grid and high-speed rail. All of these kinds of activities would have a positive impact on land markets.
President Trump’s plan would incentivize and stimulate at least $1.5 trillion in new investment over the next 10 years, shorten the process for approving projects to 2 years or less, address unmet rural infrastructure needs, empower State and local authorities, and provide for intensive workforce training. The plan addresses more than traditional infrastructure — like roads, bridges, and airports — but addresses other needs like drinking and wastewater systems, waterways, water resources, energy, rural infrastructure and public lands.
The proposal introduced by Democrats in the House would offer 5 times the amount of federal infrastructure funding over the President’s plan. Their plan would boost local economies and generate billions of dollars in new economic activity without adding to the deficit. Our infrastructure plan will invest in American iron and steel and new American-made green infrastructure materials to support good-paying jobs, and ensure opportunities for small business owners. Our plan will ensure projects advance quickly, while maintaining key environmental protections and labor standards.
Both plans are similar – both seek to leverage federal resources to empower the private sector and state and local governments to develop these projects. Both promise to shorten and ease the permitting process and both promise extensive worker retraining.
Would you like to know another similarity between the two plans? Nothing has happened to either of them since they were published. Yes, the President has pushed federal agencies to ease permitting restrictions and some individual bill have been introduced, but at this time nothing substantive in this area has been accomplished.
If I were a betting man (which I am most decidedly not) I would not place my hard earned money on a massive infrastructure spending bill moving through Congress in 2018. Just like with the Farm Bill, Congress is running out of time and lacks the focus to get something like this across the finish line – neither party wants to give their opponents something to brag about in the upcoming elections.
If you would like additional information on any of these issues, please contact me at 202-383-1259, firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the 2018 Summer Terra Firma Magazine, the official publication of the REALTORS® Land Institute.
About the author: In his position with the National Association of REALTORS®, Russell Riggs serves as the RLI’s Government Affairs Liaison in Washington, D.C., conducting advocacy on a variety of federal issues related to land.