MONEY FOR NOTHING AND, YES, MAYBE THE CHICKS ARE FREE

A great, infuriating story in today’s Washington Post. It’s about drought relief the feds gave out to ranchers who didn’t need it, some of whom live in North Texas. There’s enough waste in this program to inspire awe in even a liberal like me. This is fiscally conservative leadership?

In all, the Livestock Compensation Program cost taxpayers $1.2 billion during its two years of existence, 2002 and 2003. Of that, $635 million went to ranchers and dairy farmers in areas where there was moderate drought or none at all…In one county in northern Texas, ranchers collected nearly $1 million for an ice storm that took place a year and a half before the livestock program was even created.


Many paragraphs later, the piece offers us this:

No state did better than Texas. In the end, all 254 of its counties qualified. Ranchers in counties without droughts collected $45 million in 2003, on top of the $67 million that had flowed to the state in 2002.

In northern Texas, Cooke County ranchers qualified for $906,000 in 2003 on the basis of an ice storm that hit the area more than two years earlier. Tim Gilbert, former head of the USDA county office, recalled that “there was no damage in Cooke County to the crops or livestock. Maybe a few pine trees got knocked down.”

Nonetheless, the county had been included in a presidential disaster declaration because of the storm. “The state office called and said, ‘Yeah, you are eligible,’ ” Gilbert said. “I said, ‘How can I be eligible for a storm in December two years ago?’ ”

Over in Denton County, northwest of Dallas, ranchers weren’t hurting from a drought in 2002. Nor were they pressuring county USDA official Blake English for the livestock money. “There has not been anything like an uproar, because most everyone agrees that there was not a disaster in Denton County,” English wrote in the minutes of a December 2002 meeting of a local farm advisory committee.

Still, in 2003, English said, he got word from his state bosses to go back and look again for a disaster — any disaster — under which local ranchers could qualify.

“I don’t deny it,” English said. “We got the message, a message to take another look. It came from our state office, probably through the district director.” English said it was “pretty clear that we wanted the entire state of Texas to be eligible.”

John Fuston, the Texas USDA director, confirmed that the county offices were urged to look for weather events and disasters that could qualify ranchers for the program. He said the agency was following the rules set by Congress.

Without any real disasters in Denton County, though, English was left to scramble. “We didn’t have a drought,” he said. “In fact, we were wet. The crops were above normal at the time.”

English said he did his best, preparing a report on a rainstorm that had blown through more than a year earlier. “We knew it wasn’t a disaster,” he said. “We knew it wouldn’t be approved.” And, according to English, it wasn’t.

Then, on Feb. 1, 2003, the shuttle exploded. To ensure recovery of the debris and pay for emergency costs, President Bush issued a federal disaster declaration. As an unintended result, most of East Texas was then eligible for livestock funds. Denton County’s livestock owners collected $433,000, records show.

“Speaking personally, I didn’t think it was necessary at that point in time,” said Calvin Peterson, an 81-year-old rancher who heads the local farm committee. “It might have been more political than anything.”

In Henderson County, about 100 miles southeast of Dallas, Nico de Boer felt the same way. When he arrived from the Netherlands 17 years ago, de Boer had 90 acres, a house, one barn and fewer than 200 cows. Today, he has 1,000 acres, multiple cow barns and sheds, 650 cows that produce 3 million pounds of milk monthly, a BMW in the driveway, a swimming pool, and two more farms in neighboring counties.

The rolling hills surrounding his sprawling farm receive a generous average of 40 inches of rain annually. When the shuttle exploded, pastures were full and there hadn’t been a drought or any other type of weather disaster in years, records show. But after the presidential disaster declaration, John Reeves of the local USDA office informed livestock owners in Henderson County they were eligible. They eventually collected $751,083 despite no shuttle damage.

Reeves said he had no choice but to write the checks. “Congress passed legislation and approved us for that Livestock Compensation Program, and that’s what it was,” he said.

“The closest debris I heard about was 10 to 20 miles away. There wasn’t anything here,” de Boer said. “Believe me, we would be better off if the government got out of the business and limited the payments to those who really need them.”

Angry yet, Wick?

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