Sharp air had drained color from mums in uptown Normal, but grassroots politics was in full bloom one day this week.
Steve Suess stood on the sunny side of the street, in front of the post office, gathering petition signatures, hoping to get his name and those of two fellow Libertarian Party members on the spring ballot for Normal Township trustee positions.
An Illinois State graduate who’s now part of its School of Communication faculty, Suess (pronounced “cease”) says township is the only local government level where party labels are used in elections, so it’s where Libertarians must begin their task of building a base.
His main concern? “Normal Township taxes are too high,” Suess says, “double what they are in Bloomington, with few roads to maintain.”
Passers-by who live in Normal seemed willing to sign his petition.
Down the street, it was warmer inside the Marriott where about 120 farmers and landowners held electronic gadgets, providing instant feedback on 40 minutes of issues concerning federal farm policy.
It was the second of three “listening sessions” being conducted statewide by Illinois Public Media and University of Illinois Extension, designed to give direction to farm and commodity organizations for when they start the grueling task of negotiating the next farm bill.
There was only passing reference to uncertainties surrounding a Trump administration’s ag policies, virtually nothing having been said about them during the campaign. A Trump surrogate has said SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and successor to the Food Stamp program) should remain part of the farm bill. But the Republican Party platform says it should not. Federal nutrition programs serve 45 million low-income Americans and account for about 80 percent of farm bill spending.
Sixty-two years have passed since farm legislation was written with a Republican in the White House and the GOP controlling Congress. To get a broad farm bill onto the president’s desk these days, you need a coalition of nutrition program advocates and the major farm organizations, occasionally joined by environmental and conservation groups.
Nobody at Tuesday’s Farm Assets Conference seemed worried the Corn Belt might move north to Canada. But almost three-quarters of those “voting” at the Marriott meeting did say eligibility for farm program payments should be linked to compliance with conservation practices.
Two-thirds predicted there will be less money available for farm program payments when the current legislation expires in less than three years. And sentiment was expressed that important elements of a farm bill, like federal crop insurance, might be more “saleable and equitable” if caps on subsidy payments were lower.
Development of foreign markets for Illinois crops was important to the group. No one mentioned that in the president-elect’s YouTube video the night before, he said he would, on his first day in office, officially tell other countries the U.S. is withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the 12-nation trade deal not yet ratified by Congress.
Each element in the hundreds of pages and billions of dollars of spending in the next farm bill will undergo tough scrutiny and bargaining in the anticipated atmosphere of reduced federal spending. And if SNAP is shifted into separate legislation, farm interests can expect a punishing legislative marathon.
But some players get a head start.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, for fees totaling nearly $1.8 million over the past 11 years, Michael Torrey has done work for the Crop Insurance and Reinsurance Bureau, a Washington-based crop insurance trade group. And for the past two years, he’s been similarly employed by the Bloomington-based Illinois Soybean Association.
Who’s Michael Torrey? The lobbyist who heads Donald Trump’s transition team for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.