By Stephen Borgna sborgna@the-leader.com

Local lawmakers and agriculture officials are still confused over Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s veto of the Farm to Food Bank bill, which would have given farmers statewide an annual tax credit for donating food to local food banks.

“I’m quite frankly puzzled by the governor’s veto of this legislation that would do a tremendous amount of good for a lot of people,” Assemblyman Phil Palmesano (R-Corning) said. “This is a benefit that they’re providing that they would be compensated partially for, and at the same time it would be helping those in need.”

“I think it’s nonsense that you wouldn’t encourage our largest industry by giving them that little break if they donate,” Chemung County Farm Bureau President Asher Terwilliger said. “And think about the ones that would donate that aren’t donating if they could get a little something out of it.”

“We are disappointed because we know it would have a positive impact,” Food Bank of the Southern Tier President Natasha Thompson said. 

Under the now-vetoed legislation, which passed unanimously in both houses of the state legislature, farmers could receive a tax credit worth 25 percent of the value for food donated to food banks, up to $5,000 annually.

Officials said those credits would help reimburse farmers for various costs sustained from donating, and would encourage more farmers to contribute unsold or unused products to local banks.

“There’s the labor costs, there’s packaging and transportation costs that are too much of a cost barrier for them to take these foods and donate them to the food banks and food pantry opportunities that we have,” Palmesano said.

“I don’t think we can put a number on it, but certainly it would have increased farmer food donations across the state,” New York Farm Bureau spokesman Steve Ammerman said. “This would certainly be helpful to offset some of the costs and barriers farmers face in getting products from the field to the food bank.”

“We have a great relationship with our local farmers, and we do have some folks that donate regularly, but this bill would have been an incentive to others who currently don’t donate but might just need a little push to do so,” Thompson said.

“When you look at it across the board, it was a win-win for everyone,” Palmesano said.

The bill received widespread support from lawmakers, the farming community, hunger action groups and others, who had urged the governor to sign the bill. Cuomo vetoed the bill for the second time in late November. Lawmakers attempted to pass it last year as well. 

Although Cuomo has said he’s in favor of the idea, the governor cited several reasons for his veto. He has said it would be challenging to determine the value of the donated food, and that the bill raised too many questions and failed to define certain terms that could lead to its abuse.

Cuomo also pointed out that a federal program already exists that offers tax credit for food donations. Like the Farm to Food Bank bill, this program also permits a tax credit of 25 percent market value for donated products.

However, proponents of the state bill have said that those federal credits cannot be used by sole proprietors and others due to the required accounting methods, which many New York farmers are unable to use due to many farmers use of “cash method” accounting.

The federal incentive states that it allows “farmers and other 'cash method' accounting taxpayers to consider 25% of the fair market value” of donated products.  But proponents also justify the state bill on the basis that under the federal program, there “has not been enough incentive to remove all of the cost barriers to greater food donations that farmers in New York face.”

Officials acknowledged that a $5,000 tax credit would not completely offset the financial losses that a lot of farms are sustaining throughout the state, but would be something at the least.

“It certainly would be helpful when they’re facing low commodity and a higher minimum wage and things like that,” Ammerman said. “Would it offset those differences? Certainly not. At most they would get a $5,000 tax credit, but that’s still something. That’s still something that can be reinvested in the farm, help pay for a farm salary, get some equipment repaired. It’s one more thing that would certainly benefit farmers in this down economy.”

Officials said they will try again next year.

“We’re going to be pushing this issue,” Ammerman said. “The governor seems to be supportive of the idea, and it’s matter of putting his money where his mouth is and putting this in his executive budget in the upcoming session.”