[eDebate] Black farmers--You may be interested

scottelliott at grandecom.net scottelliott
Tue Apr 21 12:30:18 CDT 2009

PROMISES, PROMISES: Obama and black farmers
By BEN EVANS ? 10 hours ago

WASHINGTON (AP) ? As a senator, Barack Obama led the charge last year to pass a
bill allowing black farmers to seek new discrimination claims against the
Agriculture Department. Now he is president, and his administration so far is
acting like it wants the potentially budget-busting lawsuits to go away.

The change isn't sitting well with black farmers who thought they'd get a
friendlier reception from Obama after years of resistance from President George
W. Bush.

"You can't blame it on the Bush administration anymore," said John Boyd, head of
the National Black Farmers Association, which has organized the lawsuits. "I
can't figure out for the life of me why the president wouldn't want to
implement a bill that he fought for as a U.S. senator."

At issue is a class-action lawsuit known as the Pigford case. Thousands of
farmers sued USDA claiming they had for years been denied government loans and
other assistance that routinely went to whites. The government settled in 1999
and has paid out nearly $1 billion in damages on almost 16,000 claims.

Farmers, lawyers and activists like Boyd have worked for years to reopen the
case because thousands of farmers missed the deadlines for participating. Many
said the filing period was too short and they were unaware of the settlement
until it was too late.

The cause gained momentum in August 2007 when Obama, then an Illinois senator,
introduced Pigford legislation about six months into his presidential campaign.

Although the case was hardly a hot-button political issue, it had drawn intense
interest among African-Americans in the rural South. It was seen as a way for
Obama to reach out in those areas, where he was not well-known and where he
would need strong support to win the Democratic primary.

The proposal won passage in May as sponsors rounded up enough support to
incorporate it into the 2008 farm bill. The potential budget implications were
huge: It could easily cost $2 billion or $3 billion given an estimated 65,000
pending claims.

With pressure to hold down costs, lawmakers set an artificially low $100 million
budget. They called it a first step and said more money could be approved later.

But with 25,000 new claims and counting, the Obama administration is now arguing
that the $100 million budget should be considered a cap to be split among the
successful cases.

The position ? spelled out in a legal motion filed in February and reiterated in
recent settlement talks ? would leave payments as low as $2,000 or $3,000 per
farmer. Boyd called that "insulting."

Boyd noted that Obama's legislation specifically called for the new claimants to
be eligible for the same awards as the initial lawsuit, including expedited
payments of $50,000 plus $12,500 in tax breaks that the vast majority of the
earlier farmers received.

"I'm really disappointed," Boyd said. "This is the president's bill."

"They did discriminate against these farmers, maybe not all of them, but a lot
of these people would prevail if they could go to court," he said.

The administration wouldn't discuss specific budget plans or commit to fully
funding the claims.

But in a statement to The Associated Press, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack
said the department agrees that more needs to be done and is working with the
Justice Department to "ensure that people are treated fairly."

Kenneth Baer, a budget spokesman for the White House, also suggested that the
White House is planning to do more.

"The president has been a leader on this issue since his days as a U.S. senator
and is deeply committed to closing this painful chapter in our history," Baer
said in a statement.

Copyright ? 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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