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Tough road finding logic, fairness in ag funding cuts

Isn't it ironic? Didn't I just say that in reference to proposed cuts in farm program funding? Even so, after hearing Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns defend proposed budget cuts that will take a significant slice of money from farmers and rural communities, the thought struck me again.

The secretary, who seems to be a very likeable man, witty, intelligent and with some deeply rooted on-farm background, defended those cuts to corn and soybean farmers gathered recently in Austin for the Commodity Classic, the annual ecumenical gathering of National Corn Growers Association and The American Soybean Association members.

Now I've covered agriculture for nearly 30 years (more than that if you count the occasional stories I used to write about humongous tomato vines growing in backyards when I was a reporter for a weekly newspaper). And in those 30 years I've seen a lot of secretaries of agriculture come and go and realize that each one serves “at the pleasure of the president.” That means he or she is pretty much duty bound to convey the boss' message, regardless of whether it's good for agriculture or not.

And all, with the possible exception of Earl Butz (who is a whole ‘nother story), stuck to that constraint. So, I don't fault Secretary Johanns. He said what he was sent to say.

But, I noticed what seems to me an inconsistency in logic. The secretary pointed proudly to the 2005 farm income projections, $78.1 billion, a record. He did not mention, however, that $24 billion of that projection comes from government payments. That's about a third, give or take a billion or two and taking into account my math-challenged mind.

He also said that cotton (and other) farmers would understand the need to balance the budget and that agriculture would be better off when the leaner budget is in place. I won't quibble with the logic that we'll all be better off with a budget that makes some sort of economic sense. (I've personally followed a program of deficit spending for years and have found that when I hit a certain debt limit, bankers refuse to allow me to keep writing checks. I personally despise fiscal responsibility but am forced to abide by it, and if I have to, why not the government?)

But I digress. My problem is that farmers take an unfair hit. The secretary said the cuts will be fair and that agriculture is not singled out. Senate ag committee legislative assistants from both parties take issue with the fairness of the proposed cuts and point out that agriculture has already saved the government $15 billion by spending that much less than projected thus far into the 2002 farm law.

Perhaps that was a mistake. It seems that the No. 1 rule in government agency budgeting is to spend it all, less someone think you can get by with less. Let no good deed go unpunished.

Committee staffers also point out that in mandatory cuts farm programs face something like an 8 percent reduction while other agencies get by with less than a 6 percent cut. What's fair about that?

I also quibble with the assumption that farmers will understand the need to balance the budget with an unfair burden on their backs. And if they have to accept cuts ag committees, with input from various farm organizations, should figure out how best to slice and dice.

I suspect farmers are having a hard time understanding why an administration they supported in massive numbers in the voting booths can offer a proposal that hurts so many of them.

But, as one ag committee staff member said at the Commodity Classic: “The budget is a big deal. But it's not a done deal.”

Much will happen in the next few weeks to determine the structure of the 2006 ag budget. Now would be a real good time to let representatives know that you really don't understand why agriculture is being hit so hard.

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