WASHINGTON — Sen. Ben Nelson fired a veiled shot from the Senate floor Tuesday at the woman seeking to replace him.
The retiring Nebraska Democrat announced a proposal that would require fees for grazing livestock on federal lands to track more closely with those charged by private landowners. The government generally charges fees far below the going rate.
“Given our huge federal debt and deficit we can no longer afford to heavily subsidize an elite group of ranchers to graze their cattle on public lands at the taxpayers' expense,” Nelson said on the floor. “These ranchers receive a special deal, federal welfare so to speak.”
The family of Republican Senate nominee Deb Fischer leases 11,724 acres of federal land in north-central Nebraska for about $4,700 for seven months — by some estimates about $110,000 less than the market rate for leasing private land in Cherry County.
Fischer, a Nebraska state senator from Valentine, is running against Democrat Bob Kerrey, a former governor and U.S. senator who found himself on both sides of the grazing fees issue on Capitol Hill.
Fischer's campaign manager, Aaron Trost, declined to comment on Nelson's proposal, saying she needed time to review it.
Previously, Fischer has defended the federal grazing program, saying ranchers help manage the publicly owned land. She also notes that her family has no control over what the government charges.
Nelson cited a 2005 Government Accountability Office study that showed the government collects $21 million in grazing fees and spends about $144 million a year to manage the lands.
He said ending the “unfair and outdated federal grazing subsidy” would level the playing field for all livestock producers. Nelson told fellow senators that the move would save taxpayers $2 billion over the next 10 years. His office later corrected that figure to an estimated 10-year savings of $1.2 billion.
Nelson plans his proposal as an amendment to the pending farm bill. He said he was not trying to single out Fischer, but to push for greater fairness overall.
“She's not alone. It's 2 percent of livestock producers,” Nelson said. “The question is: Is it fair to the other 98 percent of producers who have to pay the private land fee that is far more in line with costs?”
Kerrey told The World-Herald he agreed with Nelson's amendment, saying it would save a lot of money. As to whether the change would hurt ranchers, he pointed out that only a small number of Nebraska livestock producers actually get the benefits and those who don't are making do without.
As of late last year, the number of Nebraska ranchers grazing cattle on federal lands was 136. That's in a state with 20,000 beef producers.
“I think it's difficult to make the case that this is going to be bad for ranching,” Kerrey said.
Kerrey said he has no problem with Fischer participating in the grazing program.
“It was certainly the law, and she was entitled to take advantage of the subsidies being provided by the government,” Kerrey said. “It's a generous program, and my hope is that she'll support eliminating it.”
Kerrey wasn't always so gung-ho about the raising the grazing fees. As a Nebraska senator, he voted against a proposal to raise the fees in 1991. Kerrey campaign spokesman Chris Triebsch said the 1991 vote came during a recession and noted that Kerrey voted in favor of raising the fees when the issue came up again in 1994 and 1996.
It's not clear whether Nelson's proposal will garner support from others, or whether it will even receive a vote.
His home-state Republican colleague, Sen. Mike Johanns, doesn't think much of the plan.
Johanns, also a former U.S. secretary of agriculture, said that it's unclear why Nelson's proposal is needed and that the current fees follow a formula that takes into consideration private grazing fees, the cost of cattle production and the price of beef.
Johanns also pointed out that the Obama administration rejected a petition from environmental groups last year seeking to raise the fees.
“Giving the government more power to almost arbitrarily set prices seems like risky business,” Johanns said.
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Staff writer Robynn Tysver contributed to this story.
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