Legislators collect millions in federal farm subsidies
BY GAVIN OFF World Data Editor
Sunday, July 10, 2011
7/10/11 at 8:08 AM
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Roughly two dozen state lawmakers - some who have railed against government spending - have collected federal farm subsidies in recent years, either directly or through payments to spouses, a Tulsa World investigation found.
Some legislators who received payments are among the largest subsidy recipients in their communities. Others are not primarily farmers, and instead work as doctors or attorneys.
At least three state legislators apparently violated Oklahoma law by failing to report the payments to the Ethics Commission, according to statements of financial interest.
The lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans, have received a combination of crop, disaster and conservation subsidies from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The USDA provided subsidies to nearly 82,500 Oklahoma farmers and businesses in 2009, the most recent year of available data. Data from 2010 are available but incomplete.
The USDA paid at least 22 Oklahoma lawmakers or their spouses a total of $3.8 million since the mid-1990s, the World found.
It's possible that additional politicians received subsidy payments because some payments are listed under a business name in the federal data.
"The farm subsidy programs are more of a revenue guarantee than a safety net for a struggling family farmer," said David DeGennaro, spokesman for the Environmental Working Group. "And that's not something the taxpayers can provide."
USDA subsidies made national news in recent weeks when Republican presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann denied receiving the payments even though federal data and her financial disclosure forms showed otherwise.
The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., has fought to scale back the subsidy program. It provided the World with the USDA's subsidy database, which the paper analyzed and matched with state lawmaker data.
Like many of Grady County's 52,000 residents, Rep. Leslie Osborn, R-Tuttle, and her husband farm. They have for 26 years.
Osborn and her husband have collected federal subsidies during most of those years, data show.
According to the USDA data, which runs from 1995 to 2010, Osborn received more farm subsidy dollars than any other sitting state legislator.
In all, the couple collected nearly $1 million in subsidy payments since 1995. They collected more than $50,000 in 2009 and more than $92,000 in 2010, data show.
In addition, Osborn's son, a recent college graduate who now farms, has collected more than $62,000 in subsidies in recent years.
Osborn said receiving the subsidies does not contradict her fiscally conservative platform. She also noted that the payments were in her husband's name.
Most of the family's payments were wheat subsidies, but they also included subsidies for cotton, livestock, soybean, sorghum, corn, oat and barley.
"I have zero vote on what the United States Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., does," Osborn said. "I don't receive one dollar from the state government of Oklahoma where I do work, except for my state salary."
But the legislator has railed against government spending during her three-year career in the statehouse.
In a March 20, 2009, post on her website, Osborn chastises federal stimulus spending. She called a $125 million project to install a new sewer system in Washington, D.C., and projects like it "useless pork."
Later she sponsored a bill to lower the income cap for those wishing to join a state college scholarship program and a bill to cut the Oklahoma Arts Council appropriation by 50 percent.
Osborn also wrote legislation that suspended the state's 2004 Art in Public Places Act.
In a February editorial in The Oklahoman, Osborn wrote, "In times of economic peril we have the green light to monitor and delve into government spending run amok, and the Art in Public Places Act is a glaring example."
Osborn said she'd continue to fight for reasonable state government spending.
"To suggest that I, as a legislator, am in any way wrong to critique government spending because my husband's farming operation receives the same federal farm program payments as thousands of other American farming operations seems unfair," said Osborn via email.
Others see it differently.
"I call it hypocrisy," said Sen. Tom Ivester, D-Sayre.
Ivester, an attorney, owns a farm with his cousin. He received $5,078 in subsidies in 2010.
DeGennaro, the Environmental Working Group's spokesman, said the program payments are no longer serving their purpose.
The federal government created the farm subsidy program around 1930 in part to help struggling family farmers.
Osborn owns about 1,000 acres, according to the Grady County assessor. The $990,527 in subsidies that she and her husband have received since 1995 is more than anyone else in her ZIP code, data show.
Through 2009, Rep. Steve Kouplen, D-Beggs, has received the third-most subsidies in his ZIP code, and Sen. Charles Wyrick, D-Fairland, has received the fifth most in his, the World found.
The subsidies to both ranchers have greatly decreased in recent years, however.
Kouplen said subsidies help farmers contend with the weather, imports and government policies. A few legislators said the payments allowed them to continue farming after bad years.
But Kouplen said it's hard to rationalize criticism of federal spending, such as the stimulus package, while also receiving USDA payments.
"A lot of times what people say that they want and what they actually want are two different things," Kouplen said.
According to financial interest records collected by the Oklahoma Ethics Commission, Wyrick was among the three state legislators who recently received more than $5,000 a year in farm subsidies but failed to report the income, as required by law.
The other lawmakers who failed to report their subsidies were Sen. Patrick Anderson, R-Enid, and Sen. Mike Schulz, R-Altus. Both are farmers.
All three lawmakers said the omissions were a mistake. Anderson said he reported the income to the Ethics Commission the day after he spoke with the World, and Schulz said he too would amend the filings.
Inadvertently failing to disclose income greater than $5,000 in a year could result in up to a $1,000 fine.
The disclosures are meant to prevent a conflict of interest, officials with the Ethics Commission said.
Like Wyrick, nearly all of the legislators who receive subsidies are farmers or ranchers, and some serve on their respective agricultural committees.
But a few lawmakers who received subsidies are professionals outside of the farming industry.
Rep. Mike Ritze, R-Broken Arrow, for example, is a physician and surgeon. Ritze has received more than $18,400 in subsidies since 1996, including $928 in both 2009 and 2010.
Ritze is a fiscal conservative who has championed limiting government and has criticized federal spending. Ritze could not be reached for comment.
Gov. Mary Fallin took office on the platform of "right-sizing" government. As a U.S. congresswoman, she voted against the federal stimulus package and as governor promised to fight the "reckless-spending and unconstitutional health-care bill."
In her 2011 State of the State Address, Fallin said: "When hard times hit, the public expects a leaner, more efficient government. ... I'm challenging our citizens and our government employees: Help me find more places to save money and cut waste."
She might not have to look far, some argue.
Fallin's husband, Wade Christensen, an Oklahoma City lawyer, has collected more than $1.96 million in federal farm subsidies since 1995, the World found.
The couple married in 2009, the same year Christensen's Blue Chip Farms in Thomas, Okla., collected $53,331 from the federal government. Blue Chip received more than $217,000 last year, data show.
Nearly all of the payments were wheat subsidies.
According to federal data, Blue Chip is the area's largest subsidy recipient and pocketed two times more subsidies than any nearby farm.
Aaron Cooper, a spokesman for Fallin, noted that Fallin and Christensen were married less than two years ago. Cooper said Fallin is not involved with Blue Chip Farm Partnership's business operations.
Cooper said Blue Chip is a management group that runs the farming operations on property owned by Christensen and his three siblings. Christensen and his siblings individually own more than 3,000 acres in Thomas and throughout western Oklahoma and are partners in Blue Chip, Cooper said.
Types of U.S. Department of Agriculture farm subsidies
Direct payments: Based on the farmer's historical acres, yields and payment rates
Counter-cyclical payments: Available when the crop's effective price is less than the target price
Disaster payments: Cover yield loss as a result of most natural causes
Marketing loans: Government loans at a crop-specific loan rate
Subsidies to Oklahoma farmers in 2009: $327,849,362
Source: Environmental Working Group
Agricultural subsidy payments to Oklahoma legislators or spouses 1995-2009
|Title||Name||City||Total since 1995|
|Rep.||J. Michael Ritze||Broken Arrow||$17,501|
|Rep.||Steven Vaughan||Ponca City||$2,019|
Source: USDA data 1995 to 2009, Tulsa World analysis
Original Print Headline: Farm subsidies go to legislators
Gavin Off 918-732-8106