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In latest farm bill, a billion tax dollars per page

When the Senate votes on passing the new bipartisan farm bill Tuesday, it's deciding on $956 billion tax dollars in spending over 10 years.

The bill itself is 949 pages. That averages out to over a billion per page.

What's in the new farm bill? The vast majority of the cost, approximately 80 percent, is to pay for the food stamp program and policies intended to help the poor. The program has ballooned over the past decade from approximately $20 billion a year to $80 billion. One quarter of children live in a household that receives food stamps, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The rest of the bill contains a new tax on Christmas trees and billions of dollars for subsidies, research money, marketing programs and all kinds of food initiatives.

The farm bill has long been a target of taxpayer watchdog groups who criticize many provisions as welfare for corporate giants and special interests. According to US PIRG, the confederation of state Public Interest Research Groups, four percent of agribusiness collected 74 percent of the farm bill subsidies in recent years. Some of the biggest recipients of farm subsidies include Tyson's Food, Pilgrim's Pride and Riceland Foods.

"At a time of supposed fiscal caution, this bill would put taxpayers on the hook for another five years of billion-dollar handouts to huge, profitable agribusiness," says PIRG's Dan Smith. "These subsidies are pure and simple a boon for special interests, at the expense of average taxpayers."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the farm bill, argues that it "further expand markets for agricultural products at home and aboard, strengthen conservation efforts, create new opportunities for local and regional food systems and grow the biobased economy."

The farm bill creates a new 15-cent tax on every live cut Christmas tree sold, to create a board to promote Christmas trees. It increases spending on programs that pay for ad campaigns for giant agriculture companies. And critics say it spends billions advancing junk food additive such as high fructose corn syrup while healthy foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, receive relatively little subsidies.

The bill increases funding to $200 million a year for the Market Access Program, which pays to advertise and promote industries and products.

Beneficiaries have included McDonald's and Fruit of the Loom. Critics say the money has paid for a reality TV show in India to promote cotton and that Welch Food got $844,000 last year to pitch grape juice overseas even though it produced $608.5 million in sales.

They also say Sunkist, the largest fruit and vegetable marketing co-op in the world, got $1.8 million tax dollars. Other recipients include the Washington Apple Commission which reportedly received $4.6 million last year, a potato marketing association which received $4.7 million, wool and sheep products, the California Cling Peach Board and the U.S. Hide, Skin and Leather Association.

The farm bill continues funding for a controversial catfish inspection office created in 2008. A coalition of taxpayer watchdog groups including the Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) says the office duplicates one that already exists at the FDA and spent $20 million over four years without inspecting a single fish.

"It's a program the Government Accountability Office has targeted five times as a waste," says CAGW's Leslie Paige.

Paige also says that the farm bill's ongoing sugar program inflates the price of sugar and benefits the wealthiest one percent of sugar farmers.

Republican supporters of the farm bill say that it improves efficiency by consolidating 23 existing conservation programs into 13 and cracking down on food stamp fraud.

Both parties say the farm bill is an improvement over the last one because it reduces duplication, repeals outdated programs and cuts down on misuse.

It ends the controversial Direct Payments program long attacked for sometimes giving checks to rich landowners who don't even farm.

But PIRG calls the elimination of Direct Payments "a political sleight of hand" that puts half of the savings into a new subsidy program that will still provide handouts to large agribusinesses by locking in record high prices of recent years. According to the Environmental Working Group, if the high prices were allowed to fall naturally, the new program could cost taxpayers $20 billion more over ten years than the defunct Direct Payments program.

The USDA views the farm bill as "a dependable safety net for America's farmers, ranchers and growers. It would maintain important agricultural research, and ensure access to safe and nutritious food for all Americans."
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