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'Labor subsidy' critic gets farm subsidies

One person's welfare is another person's worthy government program.

At the recent Lee County Board meeting, the issue of the state's prevailing wage law became an issue. 

This is the law that requires government agencies to pay prevailing wage rates in public works programs. Detractors see such rates as following the union scale.

The board ultimately approved the annual prevailing wage ordinance. Otherwise, officials warned, the county wouldn't get state money for public works projects.

During the debate, board member David Gusse, R-Dixon, urged his colleagues to vote against the ordinance.

"The prevailing wage is a crock," he said. "It is a taxpayer subsidy to labor. Nothing more, nothing less."

The ordinance passed 18-4.

Gusse is a farmer, so I checked to see whether he had received agricultural subsidies. The Environmental Work Group maintains an online subsidy database, tracking farmers' payments from 1995 to 2012.

In that time, Gusse received $109,505. Among Lee County's subsidy recipients, Gusse comes in 643rd out of more than 2,000. The top one is Sauk Valley Farms, which pulled in $5.3 million during the period. In Whitside County, Perino Land & Cattle is the highest with $1.7 million.

I asked Gusse about farm subsidies.

"I've never really been wild about them," he said. "We can get along very well without them. It gets risky, but since when is farming supposed to be a guarantee?"

He said he is more in favor of government help – in the form of crop insurance – when it comes to disasters.

"Any of us who went through the 1980s had disastrous prices," Gusse said.

Crop insurance then, he said, wasn't what it is now, so a lot of farmers went out of business.

What Gusse opposes, he said, is "when you get a check for basically being alive and signed up for a program."

He said he opposed the subsidy for labor because cities and counties have no choice but to go along. With agricultural subsidies, farmers have a choice about whether to participate.

In our society, programs such as farm subsidies and welfare for the poor get great scrutiny, as they should.

Unfortunately, tax breaks don't get similar attention, even though they are a type of government spending. But politicians like them better because they have the appearance of tax cuts.

Let's look at perhaps the most popular tax break – the home mortgage interest deduction, meant to increase homeownership. Many more Americans own homes these days, but, of course, the tax break lives on, costing federal coffers up to $100 billion a year.

In effect, renters are subsidizing homeowners. Is that fair?

In the bigger scheme, Gusse is, by no means, alone. Most of us receive some sort of government subsidy – whether it's a direct payment or courtesy of a tax code riddled with perks.

David Giuliani is a reporter for Sauk Valley Media. He can be reached at dgiuliani@saukvalley or at 800-798-4085, ext. 525. 

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