Kurt Bills, the Republican-endorsed candidate for U.S. Senate took aim at Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar on Tuesday for her support of a farm bill that recently passed the Senate.
During a debate at the FarmFest trade show in southwest Minnesota, Bills said he would not have voted for the farm bill on the grounds that it was too expensive. The bill passed the Senate with bipartisan support.
There were sharp differences on federal farm policy on display Wednesday during the Senate debate, which also included Independence Party candidate Glen Menze.
Bills clearly sought to separate himself from his two opponents in one huge area: government subsidies.
"Get rid of every last stinking subsidy and get rid of the TARP and the bailouts for Washington bankers and the stimulus that goes to corporate CEO's," Bills said. "Get rid of it all."
Although Bills didn't specifically mention farm subsidies in that comment, he later said some agriculture programs need to be closely examined and possibly ended. He cited federal support for the energy industry, including corn-based ethanol.
"Get rid of the subsidies for oil, get rid of the subsidies for farm, and you'll see your productivity go up," Bills said.
Bills specifically called for an end to the renewable fuels mandate requiring gasoline companies to blend billions of gallons of ethanol into fuel every year.
That provides stable demand for about 40 percent of the nation's corn crop. But with a persistent drought and fears of a short supply, corn prices are at record levels, and many blame the ethanol mandate for accelerating the price hikes.
But Bills also supported some types of federal farm aid. He said crop insurance should stay, but said the degree of federal subsidies for the program should be examined. He said the farm bill spent too much money.
Klobuchar, however, said farmers depend on federal dollars. She said the farm bill actually reduced federal spending on agriculture by $23 billion.
"I think the $23 billion in reductions are significant, and that is a score from the bi-partisan, non-partisan congressional budget office of how much we reduced this by," Klobuchar said, noting the cuts included $16 billion for agriculture and the rest for conservation and food programs. "I think that's very important as we deal with a tough budget situation."
The farm bill has run aground in the House because of divisions within the GOP majority. As to calls to cut federal support for ethanol, Klobuchar said she does not favor an immediate reduction in the ethanol mandate. Some livestock groups have pushed for that, hoping lower production would reduce corn prices and, as a result the cost of feed. Klobuchar said it's important to maintain current ethanol production levels.
"We've seen a decline in our dependence on foreign oil — I don't think anyone expected this — from 60 to 45 percent," Klobuchar said.
She credits increased drilling, higher gas mileage standards and renewable fuels with contributing 10 percent of the nation's fuel supply.
Klobuchar said she understands the impact of high corn prices on livestock producers. But she said the answer is for the House to pass the Senate farm bill, which she said contains provisions to help livestock producers.
Menze focused on the failure of Congress to pass a new farm bill. He said the legislation is on hold because the two major parties are too busy focusing on the November election.
"For farmers it doesn't really matter which party is holding it up, or which party is not holding it up," Menze said. "This is a drought year. We need to get the farm bill passed."
The candidates, agreed on some farm issues. There was a consensus, for example, that Environmental Protection Agency regulations affecting farmers are excessive. The federal agency has proposed regulating agriculture in areas like dust control, something the senate candidates criticized.
It's not clear how many more Senate debates there will be. Bills has called for 20 debates, which Menze said he supports. But Klobuchar has committed to just one more, at the Minnesota State Fair.