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Wednesday June 15, 2011 | 04:06 PM

The U.S. House appropriations season is in full swing, and Democratic Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud of Maine are plugging the pros and panning the cons of some of what’s in the 2012 spending bills beginning to wind their way through Congress, from agriculture to military construction.

The issue of the white potato, a staple crop for a number of Maine farmers, and its place in the federal food assistance chain continues to be a white hot one for Maine lawmakers.

After losing the battle over the potato being left off the list of sanctioned vegetables for the Women, Infants and Child (WIC) program, Maine lawmakers are trying now to prevent the potato from being dropped from the federally subsidized school lunch and breakfast programs.

Michaud is decrying an amendment to the agriculture spending bill being debated this week by the House authored by Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Cal., which would essentially put a final rule into effect limiting potato servings as part of the school meal plans. Michaud and other potato proponents, who say they can be served in healthy ways not just fried and are inexpensive for budget-conscious school districts, want more time for agriculture department to consider public comments on the rule as it shapes the final regulations. The agriculture spending bill, as it came out of committee, would instruct federal regulators to look back at the tens of thousands of public comments and evaluate whether to put the proposed final rule into effect.

“Blocking the consideration of public comments as the Department of Agriculture finalizes its rule doesn't do anything to improve the nutritional value of school lunches," Michaud said in a statement. "This amendment turns federal rulemaking on its head, would be harmful to Maine's potato industry, and could limit student access to vegetables like potatoes, which are excellent sources of potassium and fiber."

Meanwhile, Pingree is not happy with parts of the agriculture spending bill that she says would hamper small and community farmers in Maine.

Pingree spoke on the House floor this week and charged that a GOP-authored provision would direct the agriculture department to restrict research in local farming and limit the federal “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” program.
 “More and more American families want to know where their food is coming from and want to buy it locally.  Now is not the time to make it harder for farmers to give consumers what they want,” Pingree said in a statement.

But Michaud is happier about parts of a military construction spending bill that contains millions of dollars for projects in Bangor and Brunswick.

The Army National Guard would get $15.6 million a House-passed bill for a readiness center in Bangor that will serve peacetime missions of assigned guard units. There is also $23 million in the bill for construction of a Brunswick Armed Forces Reserve Center that the Guard says will house units such as the 133rd Engineer Battalion Headquarters and the Forward Support Company of the Maine Army National Guard.

Those companies now are in decades-old, inadequate facilities in Portland and Gardiner, the military says.

The military construction bill also contains funding for Veterans Affairs program, and provides a total of $129.7 billion for all veterans programs for 2012 and $52.5 billion for 2013 advance appropriations for medical services and facilities. That’s $6.5 billion more than current funding, Michaud said.

"This bill represents a bipartisan effort to ensure that funding for our veterans increases to help meet the growing needs of the VA," said Michaud. "I'm pleased that advanced funding for the next fiscal year is also included. This provides the VA with the ability to plan ahead and use their resources in the most effective way possible."

Of course, all this is far from final, as the House and Senate will pass separate bills and have to reach a consensus later this year – though the process often is arduous and results in gridlock and massive catch-all spending bills that can leave everyone unhappy.

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Kevin Miller is Washington bureau chief for the Portland Press Herald and MaineToday Media. He has worked as a journalist in Maine for 6 ½ years, covering the environment, politics and the State House. Before arriving in Maine, he wrote about politics, government and education for newspapers in Virginia and Maryland.
Kevin can be reached at 317-6256 or kmiller@mainetoday.com

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