House passes Agriculture E-file Act

House passes Agriculture E-file Act

By Shruti Dat'

GCN Staff

APRIL 11—The House on Monday passed the Freedom to E-file Act (S 777), which would require the Agriculture Department to establish an electronic filing and retrieval system via the Internet so farmers could download and file paperwork electronically.

The bill would require the department to post certain forms within 180 days of enactment and others within two years.

The legislation sends a strong signal to the department to look at electronic means to provide services to rural America, said Joseph Leo, Agriculture chief information officer.

The department would have to rise to the challenge, because the legislation sets an ambitious time frame, he said.

Leo's office has been assessing security concerns of online access, he said. It is expected to take six to nine months to evaluate security options.

"I will not be sloppy and compromise security," Leo said.

The Senate version of bill, sponsored by Sen. Peter G. Fitzgerald (R-Ill.) last year, also would require the department to provide online access to information on farm programs, quarterly trade, and economic and production reports.

The legislation would direct Agriculture to create a common computing environment and develop common Internet user interface locations and applications.

The legislation specifically affects the Farm Service Agency, Risk Management Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service and some rural development components of the department.

Farmers currently wait in long lines to file USDA paperwork at county offices, Fitzgerald said. The American Farm Bureau estimates that farmers spend about $20 million to comply with federal regulations.

"As our society has become more technological, so have our farmers," Fitzgerald said. A 1999 Farm Journal study revealed farmers' Internet use has almost doubled since 1997, he added.

The Senate passed the legislation in November. The House passed an amended version sponsored by Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.). The bill now moves to a conference committee.

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