Bill contains $1.15B for black farmers

Advocates for black farmers and Native Americans hope their claims against the federal government will be resolved this week with the passage of a tax extenders bill.

The tax bill includes a provision to resolve longstanding discrimination claims by black farmers as well as the federal government’s mishandling of Native Americans’ land trust accounts. The measure is estimated to cost $4.6 billion over 10 years.

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A House vote on the bill is expected as early as Tuesday, according to a House leadership aide. A Senate leadership aide said the upper chamber could consider the bill by the end of the week.

The complication in both chambers is how to offset the cost of the nearly $200 billion bill. Some of the bill’s cost is offset with a new tax on “carried interest” income commonly paid to hedge fund managers, but the bill as written would add to the deficit.

“I’m hearing that it will pass and I’m hopeful that it will pass. This is long-overdue justice for black farmers,” said John Boyd Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Association. “I’m hopeful we will get a vote in the Senate before the week is out.”

At issue is a longstanding lawsuit brought by black farmers against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The suit said USDA had discriminated against black farmers by not providing them with loans and grants that were given to white farmers.

A federal court ruled in favor of the group of black farmers in 1999, but several farmers filed too late to receive compensation from the ruling.

Congress included language in the 2008 farm bill authorizing payments to those who filed late. The tax bill would appropriate $1.15 billion to fund these claims.

The deadline to find funds for the black farmers’ settlement is May 31. If the deadline is missed, lawyers for the black farmers and the Justice Department both would have to agree to seek a deadline extension or they would have to renegotiate the settlement’s terms.

Boyd said while the provision is “welcomed, good news,” it will likely come too late for this year’s harvest.

“It looks like the farmers are going to miss another crop season, which is certainly what we didn’t want to do,” Boyd said.

More than $3.4 billion would go to fund claims by Native Americans resulting from a class-action lawsuit known as the Cobell settlement that was initiated in 1996.

At stake in that suit is the federal government’s mishandling of more than 300,000 individual Native American trust accounts, funded by the lease and sale of natural resources on tribal lands. Plaintiffs in the suit have asked the government to provide a better system to manage the accounts going forward, as well as a full and accurate accounting of trust beneficiaries.

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The deadline to find the funds for the Cobell settlement is May 28.

This is not the first time Congress has tried to find funding for both of the settlements.

Earlier this month, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) tried to attach settlement funds to a disaster-assistance bill by asking for unanimous consent from the Senate. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), however, denied his request.