WASHINGTON -- At least three of the Wisconsin state Senate Republicans currently demanding that public workers sacrifice benefits, wages and even collective bargaining rights for the sake of the budget have applied for and received hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal farm subsidies, a Huffington Post review of state and federal records shows.
From 1995 through 2009, state Sens. Luther Olsen, Dale Schultz and Sheila Harsdorf all had stakes in farms that received between them more than $300,000 in taxpayer funds.
Those federal appropriations had no direct impact on the state’s current budget woes, but the cash spent on those subsidies, which went to support a range of functions -- from soybean production to small hog operations -- could have been used elsewhere, perhaps even in Wisconsin. More than that, critics say, it muddles the notion, pushed by these lawmakers and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), that only they are serious about reining in an overextended, overspent government.
“Members of both parties ... preach fiscal austerity all the time, but then when it comes to farm subsides going to farmers in their districts, they think the spigot should remain wide open,” said Don Carr, a spokesman and policy adviser for the Environmental Working Group, which tracks and critiques federal farm subsidies.
As Carr acknowledged, there is more than a little irony in the use of government largess by the same senators now demanding that public workers tighten their belts.
Farm subsidies have long been criticized by conservatives and progressives alike as a clear waste of taxpayer money, but supporters of federal farm policy and less partial observers caution that for small farms, taxpayer help is key to survival. In the case of the Wisconsin state legislators, the farms in question seem to be primarily family operations.
On his 2011 financial disclosure form -- obtained by The Huffington Post via a records request with the State of Wisconsin Government Accountability Board -- Olsen lists Riverview Farm in the town of Waushara as a business interest. There are a number of other Olsens listed as partners, with Luther Olsen claiming a 20 percent stake. According to the Environmental Working Group, Riverview Farm in Waushara County has received $58,502 subsidies from 1995 to 2009. Another Riverview Farm in nearby Portage County received $25,730, though there is no word as to whether this is a related entity.
Olsen lists Sunflower Farm, also in Waushara, among his business activities, as well. That farm received $2,193 in federal subsidies in 1996. The senator’s ownership stake there is 8.3 percent.
Several phone calls to Olsen’s office were not returned.
On his 2011 financial disclosure form, Schultz lists the “Schultz Family Farm” in Sauk County as a business activity. According to the Environmental Working Group, a Dale W. Schultz in Sauk County has been paid $61,171 from in farm subsidies from 2000 to 2009.
Several calls to Schultz's office were not returned.
Harsdorf does not list any farms on her 2010 personal financial disclosure form. But her earlier filings have listed a personal business stake in Trim-Bel Valley Farms, according to records compiled by the Center for Public Integrity.
Trim-Bel Valley Farms is based in Pierce County – Harsdorf’s home. And according to the Environmental Working Group, one Sheila E. Harsdorf had a 50 percent ownership stake in the farm as of 2008. The farm received $194,763 in federal subsidies from 1995 through 2005.
Several calls to Harsdorf's office were not returned.
That local lawmakers are benefiting from federal farm subsidies is nothing new. In South Dakota and Idaho, both Republican and Democratic state Senators have worked in the field when not legislating. Some state legislative calendars have even been designed to accommodate key farming seasons, Carr said.
With respect to Wisconsin, officials with the Department of Agriculture could not immediately say whether the state's federal help was above or below other state averages. A 2009 USDA factsheet showed that the agency spent nearly $314 per Wisconsinite on agricultural and natural resources issues. Wisconsin is one of the top ten agricultural states in the nation, with more than $51.5 billion in annual economic output from that sector.
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