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Agriculture chief says black farmer discrimination settlement needs $1.15B

Obama administration wants Congress to provide the money by March 31, says Secretary Tom Vilsack.

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 Tom Vilsack said on Tuesday.

After testifying before the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, Vilsack told reporters the administration was asking for the money on an emergency basis, without offsets, because the 2008 farm bill said the Justice Department's judgment fund -- the normal source of settlement money -- could not be used to make the payments. The Obama administration wants Congress to provide the money by March 31, Vilsack added.

The farm bill urged USDA to settle the cases and provided an initial $100 million in funding. Total payouts under the settlement would be $1.25 billion.

When the agreement between the government and lawyers for the black farmers was announced on Feb. 22, a Justice Department official said the plaintiffs' lawyers 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 a speedy route for small payments and another for payments of up to $250,000 to farmers who submit more complex information on their cases.

Meanwhile, 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 said. He noted that the Native American case is established as a class action suit, while cases involving Hispanics and women might involve filings by thousands of individuals.

For the cases to be settled, Vilsack said, "there will have to be an understanding on the dollar amount" among lawyers on both sides, 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 Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., has introduced a bill to appropriate money to settle the women's cases.

In other news at the hearing, Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., warned that rural shoppers might be using food stamps to buy "empty calories" and asked Vilsack whether 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 responded that grocery stores typically contain 50,000 items, which makes it impossible for USDA to encode the electronic benefit transfer cards to limit many purchases. But USDA is considering incentives for food stamp beneficiaries in which the grocer would be paid one dollar if a beneficiary purchased certain foods such as fruits and vegetables, while the beneficiary would be charged only 80 cents on the card, he added.

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.