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Heritage Foundation blasts disaster funding

The Washington, D.C.-based Heritage Foundation says a Senate-passed supplemental appropriations bill that includes $4 billion in disaster assistance funding for farmers is a “brazen attempt to capitalize on the plight of Katrina victims and the need for funding the Iraq War.”

The lion’s share of the bill’s $106 billion — $92 billion — is designated for continuing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and to fully fund President Bush’s request for additional relief for Hurricane Katrina and Rita victims.

But, the conservative think tank says, the Senate version of the bill earmarks another $14 billion for what it calls non-emergency spending in a number of categories, including the $4 billion for farm “bailouts, which comes on top of the $25 billion that will be spent this year on farm subsidies, even as farm income reaches near-record highs.

“Additional funding is needed for continuing operations in Iraq,” two Heritage Foundation analysts write, “but the Senate approach is blatantly irresponsible.”

In a Web memo published by the foundation, Brian M. Riedl and Alison Acosta Fraser say the Senate bill (the House version contains only the funding for Iraq and Katrina) contains no offsets and makes no trade-offs to fund priorities like Katrina relief.

“Second, the Senate bill abuses the definition of ‘emergency’ and brazenly capitalizes on the plight of Katrina’s victims and the need to fund war operations to cram in billions of dollars in unrelated spending while evading budget caps established a year ago,” they write. “And the Senate bill piles all manner of unnecessary pork projects on top of an already expensive payload.”

The farm bailout tops the list of what the writers call the “Senate’s Deadly Sins.” They say that after averaging less than $14 billion during the 1990s, annual farm subsidy spending has topped $25 billion throughout the current decade.

“Yet even as net farm income in 2005 topped $72 billion for only the second time ever, Senators Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Conrad Burns, R-Mont., secured an amendment to provide $4 billion in nationwide agriculture disaster assistance. These funds were not requested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and many of them would be spent in areas not affected by Hurricane Katrina.”

The writers also claim many of the spending items are duplicative and unnecessary because assistance for livestock, trees and specialty crops are already covered by Section 32 disaster payments. (They fail to mention that USDA is still writing the regulations for portions of the Section 32 program eight months after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast.)

“It is also noteworthy that Washington is subsidizing farmers who enjoy an average income that is 17 percent above the national average and an average net worth that is double the national average. And two-thirds of all farm subsidies are distributed to the wealthiest 10 percent of farmers, most of whom report household income above $135,000.”

The foundation also criticizes Mississippi Senators Trent Lott and Thad Cochran for inserting $700 million in the bill to re-route a CSX freight rail line northward to make room for waterfront development along their state’s Gulf Coast.

Cochran and Lott say relocating the line inland would make it less vulnerable to future hurricanes and would encourage other businesses to locate farther from the coast.

It also cites an amendment offered by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., to provide $594 million for additional highway spending. The only specific project mentioned in the legislation, the foundation writers say, is the Kuhio Highway in Kauai, Hawaii. (The latter is located 4,085 miles from the path of Hurricane Katrina, the authors note.)

In another development, the office of Montana’s Sen. Burns issued a press statement saying the senator had spoken with Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns and expressed his concerns with Johanns’ comments that the disaster assistance provisions of the supplemental appropriations bill were not needed.

“He (Johanns) needed to understand the lay of the land in Montana — I just don’t think he knows what we are dealing with,” said Burns. “I made him aware of the situation on the ground, and I think he understands better now. We are just coming out of seven years of drought, and to be hit with these input cost increases — well, for some folks it is just too much to take.

“The hurricanes drove these costs through the roof, and as we provide relief to folks in the Gulf states, we can’t ignore the needs of those in other states who are feeling the pinch of the hurricane’s effects on fuel and fertilizer costs.”

Burns said he intends to keep pushing for this emergency relief funding, “even though we don’t have the full support of the secretary.”

Besides money to help farmers and ranchers deal with rising the effects of floods, droughts and other weather problems, the agriculture disaster relief amendment would provide assistance for fuel and fertilizer costs equal to 30 percent of a producer’s direct payment. The funding is designed to help growers manage input costs, after seeing fuel and fertilizer prices skyrocket in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, according to Burns.


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