Sunday, May 22, 2005

U.S. soldiers in Iraq who grow tobacco for a living missed out on the $10 billion tobacco-subsidy buyout approved last year, but they have a chance to recoup those lost dollars thanks to an amendment to the House Armed Services Committee’s authorization bill.

Reps. Jim Cooper, Tennessee Democrat, and Geoff Davis, Kentucky Republican, were able to persuade Republican leaders to support their amendment that will let about 60 soldiers collect 70 percent of the lost proceeds.

“The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the costs would be less than $500,000. You must be a longtime tobacco farmer and a reservist who was called up early to qualify,” Mr. Cooper said.

Mr. Cooper said a master sergeant living in his district informed him of the discrepancy and that he was “compelled” to act.

The tobacco buyout was approved last year as part of a corporate tax reform package. Under its terms, the federal government paid tobacco farmers to grow other crops. The payment was assessed based on tobacco crop yields for either 2002 and 2003 or for 2003 and 2004.

But reservists called up early in 2003 were unable to plant their crops that year, missed last year and some are still on the battlefield.

Mr. Cooper said that is tantamount to penalizing someone for serving the country and cited numerous laws that protect the jobs, property and credit status of soldiers, and provide other financial protections while they serve overseas.

He expected the bill to fail before he introduced it during a legislative markup hearing Wednesday, after being told that leadership would not support it because it was not germane to the authorization bill.

But Rep. John M. McHugh, New York Republican and chairman of the military personnel subcommittee, reversed course and urged members to accept the amendment, saying, “Sometimes you just have to do the right thing.”

“I looked at it, and the reality is unlike many other agriculture producers, who are part of a normal every-year program, tobacco farmers were under a very narrow window of opportunity,” Mr. McHugh said.

Mr. Cooper said he hopes the amendment will survive floor debate and not be stripped from the authorization bill before the House approves the measure. After that, it would encounter another hurdle in House-Senate conference negotiations, but Mr. McHugh was optimistic.

“Every bill has a chance of being stripped out or amended, and I can’t imagine any portion of the authorization would not be on the table. But I have not heard any opposition to it, so we’ll see,” he said.

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