Millions in federal ag money flows to Idaho lawmakers
According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which hosts an online database detailing federal ag subsidies between 1995 and 2009, about $4.3 million from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has found its way into the pockets of Idaho state legislators. Subsidies come in a variety of forms, including money for commodities when prices drop below federally-mandated levels, direct payments, and disaster recovery funds.
A number of those receiving federal dollars have voted to push back on the federal government in years past or ran on a limited government ticket in 2010. Those lawmakers contacted had a common explanation – the federal government is very involved in agricultural production and pricing. They would prefer it to be otherwise, but market realities dictate that the payments are part of their farming and ranching operations.
Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, qualifies as one who ran on the limited government platform but who has also benefited from federal money.
Nuxoll didn’t directly accept subsidies, but her husband, Felix, did to the tune of $214,364 between 1995 and 2009. Nuxoll’s campaign website speaks of limited government and balanced federal budgets.
In an interview with IdahoReporter.com Friday, Nuxoll explained that government involvement has essentially forced her husband to take the money, though she noted that they made it nearly 10 years in the farming business without subsidies when they started their operation.
Nuxoll takes a global view on food production and the subsidies. “We are producing food for the world, to help feed everybody,” she explained. “We are doing a benefit for the common good of the people.”
Even though she has benefitted from the money in the past, Nuxoll feels that programs should be cut back, but not eliminated completely. “We would like to see the government out of farming, to an extent,” she explained, adding that some subsidies might still be necessary to assure food production in a global marketplace. “I think government has to be involved somehow, but to a lesser extent.”
Another lawmaker quick to push back on the feds is Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, who accepted a smaller amount than Nuxoll, $26,714 between 2001 and 2007, according to EWG. He told IdahoReporter.com that the money came from a federal conservation program that enticed farmers not to farm, but rather to plant different types of grass on the land.
He says he has never been a farmer and that the money came because he owns land in Montana, which his brother manages. “The choice to put the land in the Conservation Reserve Program was not my choice,” said Vick.
In the House, the taking of federal money starts close to the top. House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, has taken in $163,502 in federal dollars.
Moyle said that as long as the money is there for the taking, he might as well take advantage of it. “If they’re not giving it to me, they’re going to give it to my neighbor,” Moyle explained. “I really wouldn’t care if they did away with all the subsidies. It’s not that much.”
Rep. John Vander Woude, a Republican dairy farmer from Nampa, has received $86,691 in subsidies, but feels that his subsidies are warranted because his business is conducted around the whims of the federal government and its ever-changing rules on commodity prices.
He explained that federal price controls can sometimes cause farmers and ranchers to take losses on products and that the subsidies help recoup losses. “The government is heavily involved in setting the price of products,” said Vander Woude. “I wish they would get out of the way.”
The money, he said, is to help offset losses caused by government manipulation of commodity markets. Because of the manipulation, Vander Woude explained, he took a $600,000 loss in his operation a few years back and received federal money for doing so. “It’s not something that makes me profitable, but it something that helps offset losses I’ve taken,” he stated.
Another large recipient of federal ag money is Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs. Andrus, the chairman of the House Agricultural Committee, holds a 50 percent ownership share in Andrus Suffolks, a recipient of $231,724 in federal dollars in past years.
Andrus, like Vander Woude, says that federal interference in the commodity markets has forced everyone to take the money. “The thing of it is that if you are in farming and ranching and you are not taking the money, you are at a great disadvantage,” he explained.
And, also like Vander Woude, Andrus says he wishes the federal government would stay out of the way. “My preference would be not to have those programs,” Andrus said.
His subsidies, he explained, came from disaster recovery payments as well as cost-share programs promoting conservation efforts.
On the campaign website of freshman Rep. Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon, he expresses concern about government spending. “There is increasing unrest among citizens about federal spending and programs that unfairly obligate and burden Idahoans,” says the site. Yet Guthrie has taken $96,025 in federal money since 1999.
He says the money came from federal money allocated to rehabilitate the Marsh Creek area in eastern Idaho and that the money benefited the local economy. “If the money hadn’t been used here in Marsh Valley, it would have been used somewhere else,” Guthrie said.
But what about his message about federal spending on his website? He says he didn’t make the laws governing the federal dollars and that he is simply a willing participant. “It wasn’t a windfall for me,” he said. “I view it as helping achieve the goals of a program.”
It looks as if only one Democrat has received money from USDA programs. The late Sen. Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, is listed as receiving $170,485. His wife, Michelle Stennett, filled in for him during the 2010 legislative session as he underwent treatment for brain cancer. After his passing, she was appointed to complete his term and then was elected to fill the seat in late 2010.
The money also isn’t flowing only to the legislative branch of the state government. While Gov. Butch Otter is not listed as having taken federal dollars, Lt. Gov. Brad Little is. The second-in-command for Idaho has a 53.1 percent ownership interesting in Little Cattle Company, a recipient of $62,411 in subsidies. Little also has partial ownership of Highland Livestock and Land, which took in $253,160 in federal money.
Little said that his federal money came from payments designed to prop up American wool production against heavily-subsidized foreign producers. Little feels that transparency into subsidies is necessary because some payments make sense and entice producers to do “the right thing.” Other payments, he explained, like those for corn to be used in ethanol, just don’t make sense.
House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, told IdahoReporter.com that there is a “little hypocrisy” in Republicans continually working against partnering with the federal government on issues like roads and health care while accepting the money. “It is, to me, hypocritical to take money from the care for the disabled and put it toward agricultural subsidies,” Rusche said, referring to Medicaid cuts in recent years.
The two largest recipients of federal ag subsidies, Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, and Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, did not return calls for comment. Loertscher holds a 50 percent stake in H. Willow Ranch Corporation, a recipient of $282,059 in federal dollars, and a 50 percent stake in Loertscher & Loertscher, which took in $684,830 in subsidy dollars. Ronald H. Bair & Sons, an entity in which Sen. Bair holds a 25 percent ownership stake, has taken $1.292 million between 1995 and 2009.
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