Billionaries get ag handouts

More than 50 American billionaires have received government farm handouts in recent years from a program created to help struggling small farmers survive.

In just two years, between 2003 and 2005, at least 56 of the richest people in the country have pocketed taxpayer-funded federal agriculture subsidies totaling more than $2 million, according to a Scripps Howard News Service analysis of a newly released U.S. Department of Agriculture database.

Included in that roster are banker-philanthropist David Rockefeller Sr.; five members of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton’s family; hotel czar William Barron Hilton; Microsoft co-creator Paul Allen; and nine members of the Pritzker clan of Hyatt Hotel fame.

Like them, most of the other billionaires either made or inherited their fortunes in ways unrelated to the tilling of soil or any other agricultural pursuits.

Instead, they qualified for the payments through their investments or other holdings, or via conservation programs that pay landowners to keep their acreage fallow to protect wildlife or curb runoff. Estee Lauder cosmetics heir Leonard Lauder, for instance, received about $4,000 via his 5 percent interest in an Idaho organic dairy farm.

Until now, the names of most of these notables, and more than 350,000 other individual beneficiaries, had never been publicly listed. Previously, only payments to agribusinesses or other firms — without a list of those who made money from their ownership percentage or investments in those entities — were released.

In a computer analysis of the 64 million records in the new, massive database, Scripps compared the names listed there with the Forbes magazine roster of America’s 400 billionaires, and found nearly five-dozen matches.

That number surprised even those who have criticized the government for allowing farm funds to fatten the wallets of the wealthy. “That makes the case,” said Brian Riedle, a senior budget analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.

The Senate began digging into the $283 billion farm bill Nov. 5, wrestling with ways to curb the amount of subsidies pocketed by the rich, particularly those not personally engaged in farming. Some of those recipients can be found in the Senate itself, where at least six of the 100 lawmakers have themselves received five-figure-or-higher farm subsidy checks.

Earlier this year, the House took its own stab at limiting subsidies to the well-off, but experts say its measure, like the Senate’s efforts so far, leaves loopholes large enough to drive a tractor through. For that and other reasons, the White House has threatened to veto any bill that it sees as too generous.

According to the Scripps analysis, the most generous billionaire subsidy in the 2003-2005 span — a total of $306,627.09 — went to Whitney MacMillan, heir to the Cargill agribusiness dynasty. Forbes estimated his fortune to be about $1.2 billion.

The Pritzker family — which besides Hyatt Hotels also owns Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines and commands a collective worth of at least $22 billion — took in a total of $273,461.57 in subsidies. Among their holdings: cattle and horse ranches in California and Wisconsin, along with timber interests in Louisiana, Illinois and elsewhere.

Oil heir and avid outdoorsman Lee Marshall Bass of Fort Worth, Texas, who is estimated to command a $3 billion fortune, collected nearly $250,000. Also in the upper ranks was oil-and-gas kingpin Tom Ward, who received subsidies totaling $135,710.98 for his investments in Kansas and Texas farms and feedlots. Most of the money came via wheat subsidies. Ward’s estimated wealth is $1.6 billion.

That billionaires are getting paid by a program — created during the Great Depression — intended to help small farmers stay on the land is the best evidence that wholesale changes are needed, critics said.

“It is not within the nation’s values to tax waitresses and welders to subsidize multimillionaires,” Heritage analyst Riedle said.

Whether the Senate will close the loopholes — and whether those limits would survive a House-Senate committee that crafts the final bill — is unknown. Senate agriculture committee chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, says reform is a matter of “basic fairness.”

“It is also a matter of recognizing that (the Agriculture Department) should not pay out hundreds of thousands of dollars — or even well over a million dollars in cases (cq) — to billionaires,” Harkin said. “These are payments we can’t afford, going to people who don’t need them.”

Among those Harkin referred to are: Microsoft co-founder Allen, who got $39,932 worth of subsidies; brokerage bigwig Charles Schwab, $67,498; the Walton family, at least $8,800; and banker-philanthropist Rockefeller, who received $50,023 in subsidies.

Worth an estimated $2.6 billion, Rockefeller is in favor of barring people like himself from getting the benefits — and not because $50,000 is just pocket change for those in his economic bracket.

Rockefeller would like to see the money go instead to help those struggling to stay in farming, spokesman Peter Johnson said.

“David believes this is a system that’s in need of reform,” Johnson said, adding that his boss is unlikely to accept any more subsidy checks.

(E-mail Lisa Hoffman at hoffmanl(at)shns.com. SHNS correspondent Thomas Hargrove contributed to this story.)

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