Business

Bills act as shelter from cold

With California's freeze-related agricultural losses expected to top $1 billion, San Joaquin Valley legislators are responding with several bills aimed at providing relief for businesses, farmers and workers affected by the disaster.

The crippling freeze caused extensive damage to the state's citrus industry, a bulk of it centered in the San Joaquin Valley. Also suffering losses were produce growers on the Central Coast and in Southern California.

State Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, has introduced two bills that would provide tax relief and job opportunities for those hurt by the freeze.

Senate Bill 114 will allow those who suffered financial losses as a result of the 2007 freeze to deduct losses against their prior year's income.

"This freeze has affected a lot of people, including nurseries, trucking companies, box companies," Florez said. "Some people may not be able to weather this without some help."

Senate Bill 115 would appropriate $1.87 million to create jobs for those unemployed by the freeze.

Florez said he also is working on providing money to Valley food banks, including the Community Food Bank in Fresno, now run by former Assembly Member Sarah Reyes.

On other fronts, Assembly Member Nicole Parra, D-Hanford, said she will introduce a resolution, similar to Florez's, that would give businesses more time to make utility payments.

She also is co-authoring a bill that would allow laid-off farmworkers to collect unemployment benefits even if they find a new, temporary job, like removing damaged fruit from trees.

Under current law, workers can earn only up to $25 a week without having their benefits reduced. The bill, to be introduced by state Sen. Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria, would increase the threshold to $200 a week.

Assembly Member Juan Arambula, D-Fresno, is pushing legislation that would make more state money available for loan guarantees for businesses affected by disasters, such as the freeze.

He also wants to allow undocumented farmworkers to collect unemployment benefits, which they can't do under current law.

"We benefit from their labor," he said. "I think now that they need help, we should be willing to help them and their families."

But that decision is in the hands of Congress because it is a federal law that requires residents to show proof of legal work status before receiving benefits, said Jehan Flagg, a spokeswoman for the state Labor & Workforce Development Agency.

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said the freeze brought on "unprecedented coordination to bring immediate relief to California's agricultural sector."

In a release, she said members of the California delegation are working on a letter to Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, asking him to immediately make a disaster declaration so that federal aid will be made available.

In Visalia to speak to a gathering of more than 200 Valley irrigation officials Thursday, Mark Limbaugh, the assistant secretary for water and science for the Department of the Interior, empathized with farmers stricken by the freeze.

"I feel for these guys. I was in the fruit business for 15 years in Idaho before I got into water, and it's happened to me -- freeze, hail, drought," Limbaugh said.

But the water officials gathered for the three-day Mid-Pacific Region Water Users Conference -- many representing irrigation districts where farmers were hit hard by the icy weather -- learned little about the Bush administration's plans to aid citrus growers and others whose crops were destroyed, or the thousands of farmworkers and packinghouse employees whose jobs will likely be lost for the year.

That's because much of the relief, if and when it arrives, won't come through the Department of the Interior where Limbaugh works, but through the Department of Agriculture.

"I think what we're going to see is a lot of people [in the Bush administration] exploring what can be done to help," Limbaugh said. "I'm sure they're engaged."

Limbaugh said the federal Bureau of Reclamation has some authority, if water contractors request, to defer repayment of capital costs -- money the water contractors pay to help maintain the Central Valley Project -- for a year.

"That would help lower the water rates that farmers pay for irrigation water," he said.

Jeff McCracken, a spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation's Mid-Pacific Region, said there are 31 water contractors -- most serving irrigation districts -- along the Central Valley Project's Friant-Kern Canal that runs through the heart of the Valley's citrus belt.

Bee staff writers E.J. Schultz and Tim Sheehan contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at brodriguez@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6327.

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