State Journal-Register

September 04, 2003

Panel wants farm subsidies tightened


WASHINGTON - A congressionally appointed commission Wednesday called for tightening the eligibility rules for federal farm subsidies to weed out non-farmers.

The panel also urged the Agriculture Department to improve its record-keeping to make it easier to track who is receiving farm aid.

The commission, created by the 2002 farm bill, didn't recommend raising or lowering the per-farmer cap on federal payments - a hot issue during the last farm bill debate. But it did say that lowering the ceiling on federal farm subsidies might improve the competitive position of small farms.

"While the competitive position of small farms relative to large farms may be enhanced, little is known as to whether that would translate into positive rural community and agribusiness effects over time," stated the 162-page commission report.

Chairman Keith Collins said tightening the rules and making more data available would improve the integrity of the farm program, and restricting eligibility to those who actually run the farm "would reduce the incentive to create entities for the purpose of avoiding payment limitations."

The report was praised by Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based advocacy group that has led a two-year effort to reform what it views as an unfair system that helps large farms get larger.

"We believe this report strengthens the hands of the reformers, and that many of its recommendations for limiting payments are sound," Cook said.

The commission report comes as the group is preparing to release next week its updated database tracking farm subsidy payments. The original database, unveiled in 2001, stirred controversy by disclosing that non-farmers like media mogul Ted Turner and basketball player Scottie Pippen received farm aid only because they owned the land.

In 2002, the top 10 percent of federal farm subsidy recipients received 65 percent of the federal aid, up from 55 percent in 1995, Cook said.

In Illinois, from 1996 through 2001, the top 20 percent of recipients were paid 79 percent of all farm subsidies, according to the database.

During the Senate farm bill debate early last year, Illinois' two senators, Democrat Dick Durbin and Republican Peter Fitzgerald, both voted in favor of lowering the cap to $275,000 per farm. But the House bill contained a higher figure, and a compromise of $360,000 was included in the bill that was signed into law by President Bush in May 2002.

"The commission's report contains useful information that will help Congress more effectively address ongoing problems associated with the farm payment system. To that end, the report is a positive step forward in making sure that assistance goes to the family farmers that need it most," Fitzgerald said.

This year, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has said he would push to lower the cap on farm subsidies when the Senate takes up the agriculture appropriations bill.

However, the commission recommended that Congress wait to make any changes until the next major farm bill in 2007, and then opt for a gradual phase-in.

Illinois and national farm groups historically have opposed payment limits.

"We're gratified the commission saw fit to say any changes should be made in the next farm bill and not this farm bill. It's important to give farmers some predictability and certainty," said American Farm Bureau spokesman Don Lipton.

The 10-member commission met nine times over six months to come up with its report.