At Budget Review Hearing, Miss. Senator Also Advocates Elimination of Tax on Veterinary Loan Repayment Program

041624 Ag Appropriations Hearing
VIDEO:  Senator Hyde-Smith, Ag. Secretary Vilsack Discuss Emergency Forest Restoration Aid for Mississippi.
VIDEO:  Senator Hyde-Smith Seeks to Overturn Tax that Hinders Veterinary Service in Rural Areas.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) today received a commitment from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for a smooth signup process for Mississippians applying for assistance through the Emergency Forest Restoration Program (EFRP).

Hyde-Smith serves on the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee that received testimony from Vilsack at a hearing to review the FY2025 budget requests for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).  The Farm Service Agency (FSA) on Monday approved an extended 120-day signup period for EFRP aid throughout Mississippi, assistance sought by Hyde-Smith and other delegation members.

“I am very relieved that forest landowners will be able to access these funds for costs associated with commercial thinning, firebreaks, and debris removal in fighting pine beetles,” Hyde-Smith said.

“There is still a long road ahead in getting Mississippi forest landowners, homeowners, and municipalities back on their feet, and I’m continuing to explore multiple angles for assistance.  Still, this emergency forest restoration authorization is a huge step forward for landowners, and I want to make sure as many eligible Mississippians get help as soon as possible,” the Senator added, before asking and receiving Vilsack’s commitment to ensure a smooth EFRP signup process.

Every Mississippi county is covered by a natural disaster designation related to extreme drought last year that has killed more than 12 million trees and led to pine beetle infestation.  Through EFRP, a cost-share program, Mississippians can qualify for financial and technical assistance to restore nonindustrial private forest land damaged by the drought and beetle infestation.

Separately, Hyde-Smith commended Vilsack for a FY2025 budget recommendation that endorses passage of legislation to end an existing federal withholding tax imposed on Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program awards.  The tax greatly diminishes the impact of these loan repayment awards, which are intended to help offset the educational loans of veterinarians who agree to serve in USDA-designated rural veterinary shortage areas.

“I truly appreciate your drawing attention to this issue,” Hyde-Smith told Vilsack.  “I think it is very important that Congress provides your Department with the statutory authority it needs to spend all of these appropriated dollars on actual awards for the veterinarians protecting our food supply and public health in rural communities.”

Currently, USDA is required by law to send 39 percent of funds appropriated to the program back to the U.S. Treasury in the form of withholding taxes on behalf of award recipients.  Congress appropriated $10 million to this program in FY2024, but only $6.1 million will be used to ease the rural veterinary shortage—the remaining $3.9 million goes back to Treasury.

Hyde-Smith, co-chair of the Senate Veterinary Medicine Caucus, has cosponsored the Rural Veterinary Workforce Act (S.2829), which would end the federal withholding tax on loan repayment awards for veterinarians who agree to serve for three years in USDA-designated rural veterinary shortage areas.

Finally, Hyde-Smith submitted questions to Vilsack on what support is needed from Congress for the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) to reinstate critical market reports that it will either cancel or discontinue this year.

Earlier this month, NASS announced it would eliminate Mississippi as a state included in its January estimates for categories including beef cows, dairy cows, heifers, and bulls.  NASS also announced that beginning with the 2024 production year, it is canceling the July Cattle report, and discontinuing the Cotton Objective Yield Survey and all County Estimates for Crops and Livestock.

“Mississippi would still receive some inventory estimates, but the categories NASS is eliminating are extremely important for the cattle industry in our state,” Hyde-Smith said.  “I am very concerned that we are going to struggle without this important data.  Markets will be more uncertain and producers will have less information to make production and risk management decisions.”