Several years ago I attended a town hall meeting right next door, in Maryville, Missouri, population 11,972.
Maryville is home to Northwest Missouri State University and sits at the heart of one of Missouri’s largest counties, Nodaway. NWMO State is a progressive school that offers laptop computers to every student. Their online resources are way ahead of their time. And it is known as having an international campus – the student body represents 35 countries, and 10 percent of the student population were born outside the United States. And most of the campus is powered by renewable energy.
With a school like that at the center of the community, it would have to be a progressive city as well, right?
Wrong. At one time they were, but Maryville has turned conservative.
At that town hall, I watched Democratic freshman U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill field questions from a group of about 150 people. Some were supportive, but most were angry about proposed legislation supported by McCaskill called the Affordable Care Act. As she stood at the middle of the room, questions seemed to pelt her from all sides. But no matter how contentious they seemed, she was courteous to her constituents. She always had an answer, and she didn’t run away. After about an hour of grilling and all the gripes were heard, she climbed into her car with a couple of aides and off they went to the next town and another third degree.
McCaskill hadn’t changed much over the years when I saw her speaking to a smaller, friendlier crowd in St. Joseph, Missouri, last month. She was courteous as always, and she brought along a friend, Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. Both McCaskill and Stabenow are facing what will probably be tough races for their Senate seats in 2018. Both said they weren’t waiting to see who their opponents would be. They have work to do.
First on my list is the farm bill. We already know President Trump’s intentions – cut it to the bone, then maybe cut that off too. Conservation, crop insurance, food aid both to foreign countries and here at home, rural development. All to fund income tax cuts. I asked both senators if they understood how important that is right now.
The short answer is “yes.”
Senator Stabenow knows the value of a good farm bill. She was chair of the Senate Ag Committee last time around. It was her leadership that got it through the Senate and passed into law after two years of polarized politicking, mostly from ultra conservatives who made no bones about their disdain for any farm bill, let alone one that works.
Bottomline: It was a year late but we got one. Senator Stabenow was instrumental. Maybe that’s why this farm bill fight seems to be rolling around too soon. It’s only been four years since the last farm bill fight, because it was passed two years late. That’s why the Senator is likely facing a fight for her office, because conservatives bent on defeating any farm bill know she stands in the way.
Moderates like Stabenow hoped to work on the farm bill this year, but nothing has gone as hoped since the inauguration.
High farm-operating costs and unforeseen, sometimes unfair competition in markets have tested farmers’ safety-net provisions while highlighting the lack of any viable protections for dairy and beef producers. The land conservation program is about the only hope for supply management, and that program is eliminated in the president’s budget proposal.
Both senators understand the current economic position of farmers. The question is how do we farmers communicate the dire straits we’re in to this administration?
It’s not just the farm bill that affects farmers. McCaskill told about talking to a limited-resource farmer whose annual earnings are about $30,000 a year. (I remember when my best farming year ever was when my income hit $30,000. Times have changed.) This farmer is 60 years old. A silver health-insurance plan under Obamacare costs him $2,550 per year. Under the current healthcare reform proposal from the Republican House, that farme’rs insurance premium skyrockets to over $14,000. “That’s almost half his income!” McCaskill said.
At 60, he’s still five years away from the safety of Medicare.
McCaskill has also pointed out that 41% of Missouri’s hospitals are in rural areas where they rely mostly on Medicare and Medicaid funding to keep the doors open. There are proposals from the administration to limit Medicaid funding and create block grants to states that may not necessarily be directed toward healthcare.
And she talked about Trump’s plans to eliminate the Rural Development program division at USDA. Rural Development contains three agencies that help address the unique needs of rural communities for basics like water and sewer treatment plants, housing, electricity, and phone and internet service.
“I guess if you live in rural Missouri you aren’t supposed to need water or sewers” she said.
It shouldn’t be surprising people listen to McCaskill. She’s a former prosecuting attorney and state auditor. She has command of facts. She’s not afraid to share, even if some people don’t agree. To that end she said she will spend her summer break time in August touring rural, low-population areas of Missouri holding town halls in places where President Trump won the popular vote.
They’ll grill her as never before.
Something tells me she won’t give an inch.
Richard Oswald is a fifth-generation farmer and president of the Missouri Farmers Union.