(Feb. 12, 5:55 p.m.) Success for produce industry lobbying efforts on the Congressional stimulus bill may be in what it didn’t get — a mandated E-Verify process for farm workers.

Produce industry interests in the massive bill also focused on nutrition and measures to help a citrus industry battered by disease.

Agriculture labor leaders Feb. 12 said they thought they successfully excluded new E-Verify mandates from the $789 billion stimulus package tentatively approved by House and Senate negotiators on Feb. 11.

Last-minute efforts continued to tweak final language on nutrition assistance and depreciation rules for citrus growers.

Both houses of Congress expected to vote on the measure Feb. 13. A House version would have mandated that stimulus spending recipients would have to adopt mandatory E-Verification.

“The best rumors of the bunch are that everything pertaining to E-Verify was removed,” said Craig Regelbrugge, vice president for government relations for the American Nursery and Landscaping Association, Washington, D.C.

“The fact is that the E-verify system is flawed,” said Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Council of Agricultural Employers.

Diane Kurrle, director of public affairs for the U.S. Apple Association, Vienna, Va., agreed, saying E-Verify isn’t ready for massive expansion and that it could force apple growers to choose between losing valued tax benefits or risk losing valued employees.

Nutrition and tax concerns

Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association, said the bill also contained language that revised the cap in spending for the Commodity Credit Corporation.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of General Counsel previously told industry leaders that new farm bill programs could not be funded until that issue was resolved.

The stimulus package will increase food stamp benefits by 13% to help offset rising food costs for more than 31 million Americans, according to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for United Fresh, said the association focused on $100 million in funding for in-school foodservice equipment. Those funds would allow for more efficient handling of fruits and vegetables for school districts who participate. It was uncertain if that provision survived at press time Feb. 12.

Kathy Means, vice president of public relations and public affairs for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, said PMA had been mobilizing members to lobby for more funding for nutrition programs in the stimulus legislation.

Industry interests were apparently not successful in winning accelerated bonus depreciation for permanent crops such as citrus, tree fruit, nuts and vineyards, said Joel Nelsen, president of Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual.

In part, that measure would have helped California growers replace valencias with seedless mandarins and give Florida growers more incentive to build up citrus acreage lost to greening disease and canker, Nelsen said.

Stimulus impact questioned

How effective the stimulus measure will be is a matter of conjecture, said Desmond O’Rourke, economist and president of Belrose Inc., Pullman, Wash.

“I think the stimulus package will do some good, but it is not going to solve the problem,” he said.

O’Rourke said Larry Summers, now one of President Obama’s economic advisers, testified to Congress a few months ago that any stimulus legislation should be targeted, temporary and timely.

“From everything I know, only about a quarter of this is timely, quite a lot of it is not temporary, and a lot of it is not very targeted,” O’Rourke said.

He said it is difficult to gauge the return on investment for $1 billion spent on bridges in Minnesota or the same amount for energy efficiency in federal buildings.

O’Rourke said there may be issues with some provisions of the compromise bill.

For example, if “buy American” provisions were preserved, that may create problems with the World Trade Organization.

The stimulus plan won’t solve the financial crunch felt in many states, O’Rourke said. Washington state’s budget deficit, for instance, has been projected at $8 billion.

While some of the funds will go to states to relieve budget pressures for schools and other programs, other funds are targeted to programs such as Medicaid, where states may actually have to increase their spending to match federal spending.