Se­nate de­rails law­suit set­tle­ment money for black farm­ers, In­di­ans

Austin American-Statesman - - WORLD & NATION - By Mary Clare Jalonick and Ben Evans

WASHINGTON — Black farm­ers, due $1.2 bil­lion for a legacy of dis­crim­i­na­tion by the Agri­cul­ture Depart­ment, suf­fered a new and dis­heart­en­ing set­back this week, de­spite the na­tional spot­light pro­vided by the quickly dis­avowed fir­ing of a black worker in the depart­ment. The Se­nate re­fused again to pay the bill. Op­po­nents say it’s a ques­tion of where the money would come from, and that’s a ma­jor is­sue with an elec­tion near­ing and vot­ers up in arms about fed­eral spend­ing.

Late Thurs­day, the Se­nate stripped $1.2 bil­lion for the claims from an emer­gency spend­ing bill, along with $3.4 bil­lion in long-over­due fund­ing for a set­tle­ment with Amer­i­can In­di­ans who say they were swin­dled out of roy­al­ties by the fed­eral govern­ment.

Even the at­ten­tion the Shirley Sher­rod case brought to the is­sue of dis­crim­i­na­tion at the Agri­cul­ture Depart­ment couldn’t bring law­mak­ers to­gether on a deal. In­stead, Repub­li­cans and Democrats alike pro­claimed their sup­port for the fund­ing — ap­peas­ing im­por­tant con­stituen­cies — while blam­ing the other side for not get­ting any­thing done.

The re­sult: Thou­sands of black farm­ers and In­dian landown­ers will keep wait­ing for checks that most law­mak­ers agree should have been writ­ten years ago.

“If you say you sup­port us, then, damn it, do it!” said John Boyd, a Vir­ginia farmer and an or­ga­nizer for the black farm­ers’ law­suits. The re­cent fir­ing of Agri­cul­ture Depart­ment em­ployee Shirley Sher­rod has brought re­newed at­ten­tion to the plight of black farm­ers who were ap­proved for a $1.2 bil­lion set­tle­ment. hastily in ask­ing her to re­sign, Agri­cul­ture Sec­re­tary Tom Vil­sack said he and the depart­ment were keenly sen­si­tive to the is­sues of dis­crim­i­na­tion and race given the agency’s dis­mal track record on civil rights.

Sher­rod, who has been of­fered a new job, says she’s not so sure about re­turn­ing to govern­ment work but would like to talk more with Pres­i­dent Barack Obama about pro­mot­ing to­geth­er­ness across the coun­try.

“I don’t want to be the fall guy, the fall girl, for dis­crim­i­na­tion in the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture,” Sher­rod said at her south­ern Ge­or­gia home. “I need a lit­tle down time to re­flect on what’s hap­pened the last few days.”

Vil­sack rou­tinely de­scribes his depart­ment’s record on civil rights as “sor­did.”

For decades, mi­nor­ity farm­ers have com­plained of be­ing shut out by lo­cal Agri­cul­ture of­fices, well af­ter the days of bla­tant seg­re­ga­tion. African Amer­i­cans com­plained that loan com­mit­tees across the ru­ral South were dom­i­nated by white “good ol’ boy” net­works that gave the vast ma­jor­ity of loans and dis­as­ter aid to whites while of­fer­ing scraps to blacks. and they have acted far more ag­gres­sively than the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion did to re­solve mi­nor­ity set­tle­ments. The block­ade has come in Congress. Lead­ers in both par­ties say that they sup­port the fund­ing but that things break down when they try to hash out how to pay.

The money for both the black farm­ers and the In­dian landown­ers was stripped from the Se­nate war fund­ing bill Thurs­day af­ter the House had passed it ear­lier this month. Se­nate Repub­li­cans ob­jected to a va­ri­ety of other Demo­cratic pri­or­i­ties as well, in­sist­ing they be paid for rather than adding to the fed­eral deficit.

Democrats have of­fered a va­ri­ety of pro­pos­als, in­clud­ing one pack­age that has tax in­creases on oil com­pa­nies and multi­na­tional com­pa­nies. Repub­li­cans have ob­jected, call­ing in­stead for spend­ing cuts else­where.

“This is an in­ter­est­ing game we’re play­ing around here,” Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Thurs­day when asked about the black farm­ers’ money, ar­gu­ing that Repub­li­cans are sim­ply stalling the fund­ing.

A spokesman for Se­nate GOP Leader Mitch McCon­nell of Ken­tucky dis­agreed that Repub­li­cans are stalling and noted that sev­eral Democrats voted against con­sid­er­a­tion of the whole pack­age of add-ons, in­clud­ing the black farm­ers’ money.

“There was no game, only a unan­i­mous, bi­par­ti­san vote,” said McCon­nell spokesman Don Ste­wart.

Steve Can­non

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