Dems target Fischer over grazing fees
July 10th, 2012
Omaha, NE – Nebraska Democrats are rolling out a new campaign ad calling Republican Senate candidate Deb Fischer a “welfare rancher.”
The ad goes after Fischer for what was, until recently, a relatively obscure point. Fischer leases public land for her ranch in Cherry County, and like other ranchers who lease federal land, pays far lower rates than market value.
“Fischer’s a millionaire rancher collecting special subsidies from the federal government,” narrates a looming voice. The ad was released statewide by the Nebraska Democratic Party this week.
Vince Powers, chair-elect of the Nebraska Democratic Party, says the amount of money Fischer has saved by leasing federal land at reduced rates adds up to approximately $125,000 each year. “It would be as if you were renting a warehouse for your business and your competitors only had to pay $5,000 a month and you only had to pay $500 a month,” Powers said. “It’s just a subsidy.”
The issue of federal grazing fees first came to light in 2005, when the Government Accountability Office reported the government spends far more on grazing land than it takes in. The GAO report said federal agencies spent $144 million in 2004 and only generated $21 million from leasing fees. The report also said grazing fees charged by the government decreased by 40 percent from 1980 to 2004, while private fees increased by 78 percent.
Fischer’s campaign released a statement Tuesday afternoon, responding to the Democrats’ ad, saying they have launched a “false and misleading smear campaign.” Fischer’s lease is “not a subsidy, and it’s certainly not welfare,” the statement read, adding “Ranchers are required to pay for additional maintenance costs and abide by strict federal regulations in exchange for leasing the land.”
Sen. Ben Nelson, who Fischer and Democrat Bob Kerrey are hoping to replace, brought the issue to the Senate floor last month. Nelson said two percent of ranchers and farmers graze cattle on federal land, and, taking direct aim at Fischer, argued, “We can no longer afford to subsidize an elite group of ranchers.”
Nelson proposed the change as an amendment to the Farm Bill – but that did not advance.
That’s not the first time the government has taken up the point. President Barack Obama rejected a proposal to raise grazing fees in January, 2011. And in April, 2012, he was urged to do so again by a group of Republican senators from western states. In a letter to the President, the senators said raising fees would push ranching families off the land, which in turn would cause rural economies to suffer and reduce open spaces.
Sen. Mike Johanns, NE-R, has also defended the current grazing fee structure. During a conference call with reporters in June, Johanns said calling the fees a federal subsidy is “very, very misleading” and that the fee structure follows a Congressionally-mandated formula that considers a host of issues, including public access and adequate wildlife habitat.
Nebraska Democrats are hoping the issue resonates with voters and will help cut into Fischer’s estimated 14 to 25 point lead before November.