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Published March 08, 2010, 07:38 AM

USDA asking for more money

WASHINGTON — In a move that is likely to add to the budget battles in Congress, the Obama administration is asking Congress to appropriate $1.15 billion in emergency funding to make payments to black farmers to satisfy the discrimination case known as Pigford II, Agriculture Secretary Vilsack said March 3.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — In a move that is likely to add to the budget battles in Congress, the Obama administration is asking Congress to appropriate $1.15 billion in emergency funding to make payments to black farmers to satisfy the discrimination case known as Pigford II, Agriculture Secretary Vilsack said March 3.

Speaking to reporters after testifying before the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, Vilsack said the administration is asking for the $1.15 billion on an emergency basis because the 2008 farm bill, which urged USDA to settle the case and provided an initial $100 million, said the Justice Department’s judgment fund, the normal source of settlement money, could not be used to make the payments. The emergency basis for the funding would mean that no other program would need to be cut to provide the money and that the settlement could increase the federal deficit.

Vilsack said the Obama administration wants Congress to provide the money by March 31. When the agreement between the government and lawyers for the black farmers was announced Feb. 22, a Justice Department official said the lawyers for the black farmers have reserved the right to revoke the agreement if Congress does not provide the money by March 31.

At the hearing, Vilsack told Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., that the Pigford II case would be settled on two tracks, with smaller payments on a “speedy” track and payments of up to $250,000 to farmers who submit more complex information on their cases.

Other cases

Vilsack also said USDA and Justice Department lawyers are meeting with lawyers for the Native American, Hispanic and women farmers who have filed discrimination cases against USDA. Vilsack noted that the Native American case is established as a class-action suit while the Hispanic and women’s cases may involve filings by thousands of individuals.

For the cases to be settled, Vilsack said, he thinks “there will have to be an understanding on the dollar amount” between the lawyers and that Congress will need to create a process for USDA and the claimants to go through to get the claims settled.

House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., has introduced a bill to appropriate money to settle the women’s case.

Food stamp issues

In other developments at the hearing, Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., noted that he has observed rural shoppers using food stamps to buy “empty calories” and asked Vilsack if USDA has considered requiring food stamp beneficiaries to make their purchases according to food quality standards for the school lunch and special nutrition program for women, infants and children known as WIC. Vilsack said that grocery stores contain 50,000 items, which makes it impossible for USDA to encode the electronic benefit transfer cards to limit many purchases. But he added that USDA is considering incentives for food stamp beneficiaries under which the grocer would be paid $1 if a beneficiary purchased certain foods such as fruits and vegetables, but the beneficiary would be charged only 80 cents on the card.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, told Vilsack he was disappointed that USDA did not include all the money available to it under the farm bill within its conservation budget. Vilsack replied that USDA wants to make sure it has staff in place to administer the programs, but Harkin noted that the farm bill included money for staff as well as programs.

Harkin, who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Food and Drug Administration, said at the hearing he wants to bring the FDA food safety bill to the Senate floor either just before the congressional break in April or just after. Harkin said there would be a few differences with the House bill, but that he hopes Congress can send the bill to President Obama by May. The House bill includes user fees to increase the budget for FDA regulation and inspection, but the Senate bill, at least so far, does not include use fees.

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