Congressman fends off criticism of USDA budget, Oroville Dam crisis

Rep. Doug LaMalfa of California, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, says lawmakers have voiced concerns to the Trump administration about the proposed 21 percent cut in the USDA’s budget.
Tim Hearden

Capital Press

Published on April 20, 2017 3:28PM

Aide Brenda Haynes, left, brings a message to Rep. Doug LaMalfa before his town-hall meeting April 19 in Redding, Calif. The meeting was attended by a standing-room-only crowd of constituents and activists.

Tim Hearden/Capital Press

Aide Brenda Haynes, left, brings a message to Rep. Doug LaMalfa before his town-hall meeting April 19 in Redding, Calif. The meeting was attended by a standing-room-only crowd of constituents and activists.

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REDDING, Calif. — Lawmakers are working with President Donald Trump’s administration to soften the impact from a proposed 21 percent cut in the USDA’s budget, a key Western member of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee says.

In particular, Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., said he understands concerns about how such a proposed cut would impact agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service, but said it’s too early to form an opinion on the overall budget.

“The budget is a proposal,” LaMalfa told the Capital Press. “It’s a long way to go as we work through the process.”

He said President Donald Trump is listening to lawmakers’ concerns.

“He wanted to propose a quality budget with numbers that work and that boosts the military, which I agree with,” said LaMalfa, who was in Redding on April 19 to hold a town-hall meeting.

Trump’s proposal for the 2018 fiscal year would cut discretionary funding to USDA by $4.7 billion to $17.9 billion. The current USDA budget includes $25 million in discretionary spending for various programs, including Rural Development, food safety and the Forest Service.

LaMalfa, who serves on the ag panel’s Conservation and Forestry Subcommittee, serves a vast northeastern California district that has suffered numerous devastating wildfires in recent years. In 2015, wildfires mostly ignited by lightning burned 186,300 acres of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

Nancy Van Susteren, a retired USFS employee from Mount Shasta, Calif., who attended the gathering, said she worried the proposed cut would hamper the agency’s ability to fight fires, clear waterways to prevent flooding and complete other tasks.

“I’m not sure LaMalfa sees the whole picture,” Van Susteren said in an interview. “My concern is for the firefighters. … If they cut the Forest Service by 20 percent, that means they’ll lose employees.”

But LaMalfa said the blow could be softened if Congress passes bipartisan legislation that would treat catastrophic wildfires the same as other disasters when it comes to funding and end the practice of “fire borrowing,” in which the Forest Service has to raid its management coffers when it exceeds its budget for firefighting.

The proposal hasn’t made it out of the Senate in the past four years despite backing from then-President Barack Obama.

“It would be much less of an issue” if the USFS could protect its operational budget against encroaching firefighting costs, LaMalfa said.

The legislator’s remarks came as more than 500 people packed a middle school theater to comment and pose questions about a wide range of issues. Many in the audience voiced boisterous opposition to Trump’s policies.

However, a few barbs were aimed directly at LaMalfa. Cottonwood, Calif., teacher Alysia Krapfel for voting against a bill while in the state Assembly in 2005 to fix the Oroville Dam’s spillway and asked if he would favor federal funding for repairs now.

As a rice farmer in nearby Richvale, Calif., LaMalfa might have had to help pay for the fixes as part of his water bills, she said.

LaMalfa said he agreed that overlooking the dam’s shortcomings was “a severe oversight” by public officials, adding that legislators voted based on assurances they received from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and state Department of Water Resources.

But LaMalfa said he will support federal funding this time, and not just for Oroville Dam.

“I will support funding for infrastructure,” said the legislator, who is also on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “We’ve got to have it.”

Among other issues:

• LaMalfa said he hopes for passage of a comprehensive immigration reform bill this year that ensures border security while providing some allowances for agricultural workers who “may not have legal status.

“If we can cut the politics out … it should be a fairly straightforward path,” he said.

• LaMalfa said he’s open to a recent suggestion by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers for the Agriculture Committee to hold a farm bill hearing in Eastern Washington. No members of the House from Idaho, Oregon or Washington currently serve on that committee.


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