Sunday, March 28, 2010
John Boyd, John Conyers and House Judiciary Attny Keenan Keller
By Kevin Bogardus - 03/24/10 03:45 PM ET
Lawmakers from both chambers on Wednesday pressed the administration to help find funds to resolve black farmers’ longstanding discrimination claims against the Agriculture Department (USDA).
March 31 is the deadline the Obama administration and Congress set to fund a new $1.25 billion settlement, according to its agreed-upon terms. But a week away from the deadline, Capitol Hill has not moved on funding for the settlement.
Reps. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Robert “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.) and Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) made a public plea Wednesday to find the money to resolve the discrimination claims.
Lawmakers said the administration needs to step in so Congress can move forward on the appropriations request. Conyers and others said the administration has to designate the settlement funding as an emergency so Capitol Hill can waive pay-go rules and attach it to legislation.
“Do we need anything else?” Conyers asked the crowd gathered at the press conference.
The member then decided to take the matter into his own hands. After calling Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s office on an aide’s cell phone from the press conference, Conyers scored an impromptu meeting with the Cabinet official Wednesday.
“Put Vilsack on speaker,” Conyers said as an aide brought over his cell phone while television cameras rolled.
Standing at the House Triangle podium with reporters watching, the powerful House Judiciary Committee chairman sorted out the particulars of when a meeting could take place. “You realize this is urgent,” he said on the phone.
Learning that the Agriculture secretary was on his way to the White House, Conyers said he could meet him there.
“I don’t want a phone conversation. I want to meet him in person,” Conyers said.
After hanging up, the Michigan Democrat said, “Jesus. Government employees.”
Aides to Conyers later confirmed that the lawmaker had scored his meeting with Vilsack. Conyers is expected to meet with the Cabinet secretary later Wednesday at his office in the Rayburn Building.
A USDA spokesman said Vilsack is actively looking for funding to resolve the claims.
“USDA is actively working with Congress to find the resources needed to fulfill the Pigford settlement agreement. In recent weeks, Agriculture Secretary Vilsack has made personal phone calls and sent a letter in support of the president’s budget amendment, and he has urged Congress to appropriate the resources to resolve this important matter,” said the spokesman.
The settlement’s $1.25 billion consists of $100 million already appropriated in the 2008 Farm Bill as well as the administration’s 2011 budget request of $1.15 billion.
President Barack Obama was vital in getting the $100 million for black farmers in the Farm Bill when he was Illinois’s junior senator.
The brash move by Conyers won approval from John Boyd Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Association, who has lobbied for resolution of the discrimination claims for years.
“It’s good that he is calling him out on the rug,” Boyd said.
Despite only a few legislative days until the Easter recess, Boyd was confident that lawmakers could act if given the green light from the administration.
“They can attach this to the next moving train,” Boyd said. “It is very doable.”
There is a possibility the settlement’s deadline could be extended past March 31, giving Congress more time to find the necessary funding. But Boyd said black farmers cannot be asked to wait any longer and deferring compensation yet again would disrupt another planting season.
“I don’t want an extension. I want Congress to act,” Boyd said. “Honestly, I don’t want to go through that process.”
Black Farmers' $1.25 Billion Deal May Fall Through
Wed, Mar 24 2010
By Jasmin Melvin
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Black farmers are worried that a landmark deal to compensate them for discrimination faced over decades could slip through their fingers as a deadline looms without funding approved by lawmakers.
Last month, the Obama administration announced a $1.25 billion settlement with black farmers left out of loan and assistance programs administered by the U.S. Agriculture Department due to racism, one of the largest civil rights settlements in U.S. history.
But the deal was contingent on Congressional approval by March 31. Lawmakers leave on Friday for a two-week break, and there is no clear sign the funds will be approved by then.
Missing the deadline "would mean missing another planting season, more black farmers going out of business, more black farmers dying waiting for justice," said John Boyd Jr, head of the National Black Farmers Association.
The USDA's decision to settle without the money to back up the deal may require Boyd, the government and all of the law firms involved in the case to go back to the bargaining table if the March 31 deadline is not met.
"The reason we took the settlement was because we thought they were going to act swiftly," Boyd said.
But a last-ditch meeting with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and key appropriators and lawmakers on Capitol Hill late on Wednesday gave Boyd some optimism about the looming deadline.
"I don't think Secretary Vilsack would want to walk away from the deal," Boyd said after the meeting. "He seems sincere."
He hopes the administration will declare the settlement an emergency, which would waive Congress from the so-called "pay-go" requirement to trim budgets for other programs to fund the settlement.
The deal, known as Pigford II, was reached with the Justice Department and USDA on February 18. About $100 million had already been approved.
The original Pigford class-action lawsuit, named after North Carolina farmer Timothy Pigford, was filed against the USDA in 1997 after decades of the department not responding to black farmers' claims of discrimination.
It was settled two years later with more than 13,000 farmers receiving monetary awards and debt relief worth more than $1 billion.
But tens of thousands of farmers missed the filing deadline so their claims were denied. The new settlement would allow these farmers to again make their claims.
(Reporting by Jasmin Melvin; Editing by Richard Chang)
© Thomson Reuters 2010. All rights reserved.
Written by: BayouBuzz Staff
U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu, D-La., today joined the National Black Farmers Association (NBFA) in calling on Congress to swiftly approve President Obama’s request for $1.15 billion to fund a 1999 court settlement compensating African-American farmers for racial discrimination claims against the United Stated Department of Agriculture (USDA). In Louisiana, 985 farmers have filed an eligible claim.
The $1.15 billion request is part of the supplemental appropriations bill Congress is expected to consider in the coming weeks.
“This settlement isn’t just about correcting past wrongs – it is about ensuring future prosperity,” said Sen. Landrieu. “These funds will help our black farmers stave off the current economic downturn and survive in the face of constant rain and storms that have crippled Louisiana’s agriculture community.
“Now is the time for Congress to end the 12-year delay and approve this settlement as quickly as possible. Nearly a thousand African-American farmers in Louisiana have waited for too long for this compensation. The finish line is in sight, and I commend John Boyd and the National Black Farmers Association for their tireless efforts in getting us to this point.”
For decades, the government blatantly discriminated against African-American farmers by denying them loans that were awarded to their white counterparts. In 1999, the USDA settled a class-action lawsuit which compensated approximately 15,000 African-American farmers. The compensation per farmer was about $50,000.
In 2008, the Food Conservation and Energy Act included a provision to re-open the case to allow late filers. The supplemental appropriations bill will ensure that these disputes are finally settled, putting an end to the 12-year waiting period.
There are 1,914 African-American farmers in Louisiana.
(Senator Landrieu Press Release)
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