Congress is considering increasing farm subsidies, but limiting the ability of couples making over $2 million a year to collect them:
A prominent San Francisco patron of the arts, Constance Bowles -- heiress of an early California cattle baron, widow of a former director of UC Berkeley's Bancroft library and a resident of Pacific Heights -- was the largest recipient of federal cotton subsidies in the state of California between 2003 and 2005, collecting more than $1.2 million, according to the latest available data.
That is the way U.S. farm programs are designed to work. Five crops -- cotton, corn, wheat, rice and soybeans -- received 92 percent of the $21 billion in federal farm payments last year. The biggest payments go to the biggest farms.
That also is pretty much the way farm programs will continue to work for the next five years under mammoth legislation scheduled today for a House vote.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco has endorsed the new farm bill, produced by the House Agriculture Committee to run programs for the next five years, as a major reform because it limits annual payments to farmers who earn $1 million a year.
The income limit for a couple would actually be $2 million, because a husband and wife each could collect.
If the bill becomes law, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says the cap will affect just 3,100 farmers, assuming they do not use accounting tactics to reduce their taxable income. Actual payments to farmers would rise over the five years authorized by the bill. The bill is over budget, so Democratic leaders propose a $4 billion tax increase on U.S. subsidiaries of foreign companies to pay for it. . . .
California's top subsidy recipient from 2003 to 2005, Bowles, 88, of San Francisco, collected the $1.2 million in mostly cotton payments through her family's 6,000-acre farm, the Bowles Farming Co., in Los Banos (Merced County). She could not be reached for comment.
Another family member, George "Corky" Bowles, who died in 2005, collected $1.19 million over the same period. George Bowles once ran the farm but lived on Telegraph Hill. A collector of rare books and 18th century English porcelain, he served as a director of the San Francisco Opera and a trustee of the Fine Arts Museums.
The farm is run by Phillip Bowles in San Francisco. Phillip Bowles was on vacation Tuesday and could not be reached. He told KGO television last week that he's no fan of subsidies, but if big cotton growers in Texas get them, so should he.
"Many of these businesses are getting 20 to 30 to sometimes 40 percent of their gross revenues directly from the government," Phillip Bowles told KGO. "I don't have a good explanation for that. Somebody else might, but it beats me."
Economists say they can find no rationale for the subsidies, which started in 1933 as temporary aid for small farmers devastated by the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. Then, a quarter of Americans lived on farms. Today, less than 1 percent do -- so few that the Census Bureau quit counting. . . .
"If the best the committee could do is say these payments are to help people in need, and we're going to define for farm legislation that somebody's in need if the family makes $2 million a year -- a million for the husband and a million for the wife -- that's a little strange. If these are really welfare programs for the needy, we don't normally cut those off at $1 million. It's more like $20,000."
Matthew Lesko would be proud. NBA great Scottie Pippen is apparently a farmer. From 2003-2005, Pippen earned $78,945 in government checks for land he controls in Arkansas. That's according to information that will be available tomorrow from the Environmental Working Group, a public interest group that is seeking a better distribution of farm subsidies.
Pippen made about $110 million throughout his NBA career, but let us remind you why he needs this. He lost $27 million in bad investments and, as of February, he owed $5 million to a bank for a dispute with a private jet company. And he just sold a 2.28-acre property with 18,700-square foot mansion sitting on it for $2.95 million. He and his wife paid $4 million for it in 2000.