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In Texas, Disaster Aid Is a Contentious Topic

Wildfires, historic drought and a tight state budget may have made Texans more reliant on the federal government, but that doesn’t mean they like it.

As Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) sought federal aid to fight wildfires in his state last week, a group of cattle raisers lobbied Congress to lift regulations and leave them alone.

“We’ve come to Washington to ask the government to please back off and stay out of our business,” Joe Parker, president of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, told Roll Call in between visits with Hill staffers last week.

In the meetings, he and his fellow ranchers requested tax relief to rebuild fences destroyed by the fires, but Parker distinguished that from direct aid, which he said the beef producers do not need. He instead suggested the government could “back off” by repealing environmental regulations and ethanol subsidies that hamper businesses.

Texas farmers have lost billions of dollars in crops and livestock in what has become the state’s worst drought on record. Yet rural advocates, many of whom are conservative, have resisted federal aid and defend state budget cuts that have made relief harder to get.

“We’re proud of the fact that our state has embraced that [balanced budget] constitutional requirement. We’re dealing with that. It’s a painful process, but we’re proud,” Parker said.

This year’s fires and drought have cost Texas agriculture an estimated $5.2 billion, according to the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, a state-funded nonprofit. In June, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began offering loan assistance to Texas farmers hurt by the drought and resulting fires.

Last week, as Perry requested $50 million in emergency aid from the federal government — which he has called overbearing, burdensome and costly — his critics pointed out that he recently slashed funding for Texas volunteer fire departments by 74 percent and for the Texas Forest Service by 34 percent. They argued that the cuts have made the state more reliant on federal aid.

President Barack Obama and Democrats have also highlighted the assistance the federal government is providing to Texas.

“If you’re someone who’s homeless as a result of the fire, you want to have federal support. That’s particularly true in Texas, where there’s been a reduction in vital support so the governor can run as a no-taxes-raised candidate,” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Texas Democrat whose district was damaged by the wildfires.

Doggett said the disasters prove that Texas can’t take care of all of its problems on its own. As the fires quell, he expects his state will need even more federal aid to rebuild.

“These are legitimate roles for the government to play,” he said.

While many Texans have taken the aid that the Department of Agriculture and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have provided, they still object to the idea that the federal government needs to swoop in and help them.

“We can take care of ourselves and our families better than [the government] can,” said Maria Acosta, president of the Central Texas 9-12 Project, a tea party group with more than 1,000 members.

Still, Acosta welcomed the federal help with the fires as a sort of refund on federal taxes that Texans pay and that she opposes.

“We do feel like if we could send less money to Washington, there are things we could do for ourselves here and do it better,” she said.

Jimmy Clark, executive director of the Southwest Council of Agribusiness, echoed the sentiment against government aid, saying: “The answer to all the problems out here is Mother Nature. All we need is rain.”

The group’s members include cotton farmers, whose drought insurance has helped them get through the dry season. But the insurance covers only costs, so few of them have been able to earn the income on which they depend.

Meanwhile, state cuts have downsized the agencies on which Texas farmers rely during such emergency situations.

The Texas AgriLife Extension Service has set up livestock supply points where farmers can pick up donated hay and round up lost cattle. But the nonprofit has had to eliminate other programs and
70 percent of its workforce because of the cuts.

“The funding presents a significant challenge,” said Pete Gibbs, an associate director with the group.

In July, organic farmer Hardy Purvis pulled out of his local farmers market because he had too few crops to sell. The Buda Farmers’ Market has since shut down for the season because of low supply.

Purvis has a kennel business that has helped cushion his losses, but he said he worries for those farmers with more land and more to lose.

“It’s just been a disaster for the conventional farmers down here,” he said. “I’m sure they’re all clamoring for whatever relief they can get from the government.”

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