Peoria Journal Star

December 21, 2005

Republicans reject farm relief funds
Drought has caused millions in damage to state's harvests


By Dori Meinert
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON - Illinois Sens. Dick Durbin and Barack Obama and other farm-state Democrats blamed House Republican leaders Tuesday for refusing to include $1.6 billion for disaster relief for farmers nationwide to a pending funding bill.

While the relief money was supported by Senate Appropriation Committee leaders of both parties, it was rejected by House Republicans during a House-Senate conference on Sunday, Senate Democrats said.

Senate appropriators had wanted the funding to be included in a funding bill for the Defense Department, which also contains disaster relief for Hurricane Katrina victims.

"I can't for the life of me understand how House Republican leadership could reject an agriculture disaster relief program. Some of those House leaders are from Midwestern states and they know what's happened," Durbin told reporters at a Capitol Hill news conference.

Drought has caused about $850 million worth of damage to the state's corn and soybean crops, the Illinois Farm Bureau estimates. Total corn production for the state is down 17 percent from last year and soybean production is down 12 percent.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Plano, believes "the relief that was meant for Hurricane Katrina assistance should be for Hurricane Katrina victims" and that spending had to be limited to avoid increasing the deficit, said Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean.

"In addition to that, there was not a presidential request nor any member of the Illinois delegation that pressed for this funding before the bill passed," said Bonjean, who accused Senate Democrats of seeking excuses to vote against the defense spending bill because a controversial provision to allow oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was inserted during the conference.

The Illinois Farm Bureau estimates that about 20 percent of Illinois' farmers whose crops were damaged by the drought didn't have any type of crop insurance.

"For those people, the only saving grace was the possibility of a disaster aid check, even as small as it was, it would at least be some money," said farm bureau spokesman John Hawkins.

In September, the Illinois Farm Bureau sent a letter to members of Congress urging them to extend the previous year's crop disaster program to 2005. But the letter didn't suggest how legislatively that could be achieved, the bureau's legislative liaison Chuck Spencer said.

While Illinois Corn Grower Association President John Kuhfuss of Mackinaw said "it's in our best interest to control the deficit," he also said he hoped there would still be some money found so that farmers who had serious crop damage could get needed help.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns in July designated all but one of Illinois's 102 counties as agricultural disaster areas. It made farmers and livestock producers eligible for low-interest loans and other assistance down the line.

"You got a lot of farmers, particularly family farmers, the smallest farmers who have the most difficult time adjusting to these difficult circumstances who are really feeling squeezed this Christmas," said Obama.

Dori Meinert can be reached at (202) 737-7686 or dori.meinert(at)copleydc.com.