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Idaho potato farmer led historic assault on line-item veto

SHARE Idaho potato farmer led historic assault on line-item veto

Mike Cranney was working the fields of his family potato farm in Oakley, Idaho, Thursday morning when he got word of the U.S. Supreme Court decision on the line-item veto law.

As the lead individual plaintiff in the historic case, Cranney had more than a passing interest in the ruling. For him and thousands of other with small farms throughout the country, it meant the small break they had won in a massive tax bill was back on the books."It could help the survivability of small family farms and help us stay competitive compared to the price of imported food products," Cranney said Friday.

But what does the price of potatoes in Idaho have to do with the presidential line-item veto?

In a nutshell, President Clinton used his newly acquired line-item veto power to strike a provision in the omnibus tax bill that gave a tax break to owners of processing facilities who sell those facilities to agricultural cooperatives.

To restore the measure, "we had to take on the whole (line-item veto) law," said Salt Lake attorney Randon Wilson, who filed the suit on behalf of Cranney and the Snake River Potato Growers Inc.

Joined by New York City - which was challenging the law over a Medicaid provision - Cranney and the potato farmers found themselves at the center of a constitutional dispute over a key component of the GOP's much-heralded "Contract with America."

A senior attorney in the firm of Jones, Waldo, Holbrook & McDonough, Wilson acknowledged that he and some of the farmers he represented went into the legal fight with mixed feelings about the line-item veto.

"When we set out, I actually thought the line-item veto was a good thing because it could help cut the pork out of the budget," said Wilson, a Republican. "But as we got into the constitutional issues, I became convinced it was a giant mistake because it tipped the balance of power."

Still, Wilson said he and the farmers didn't want to fight that battle. "We just didn't have a choice."

Cranney agreed, saying, "Personally, I feel somewhat the same as the Supreme Court ruling, that there's some danger in giving the president that kind of power. But the primary issue for us was the agricultural position."

According to Cranney and Wilson, the small farms that band together in co-ops have been at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to buying agricultural facilities because the big conglomerates can use the merger process, stock trades and other measures offering tax advantages to the sellers.

The line-item that Clinton vetoed simply "leveled the playing field," Wilson said. The bill was originally fashioned to help a group of Idaho and Oregon sugar beet growers buy Amalgamated Sugar facilities in Logan, Wilson said. And though that deal was consummated without the benefit of the tax measure, other transactions are pending and will likely succeed thanks to the 6-3 decision of the Supreme Court, he said.

For example, Cranney said he and neighboring growers are about to purchase a small potato packing processing facility with a bit of help from the tax measure.

Cranney, a fourth-generation potato grower, said, "It's going to help the individual who is selling very modestly and will help us keep the price down on our products."

Wilson called Thursday's landmark ruling a big victory for the family farms of America. And it's OK that the line-item veto was a casualty along the way, he added.

The only way to make the line-item veto constitutional is to pass a constitutional amendment, Wilson said. "I don't think that will ever happen."

However, the Associated Press reported Friday that congressional advocates of the line-item veto haven't entirely given up the fight. Two senators introduced a bill - not a constitutional amendment - that would create individual pieces of legislation out of thousands of spending proposals otherwise contained in a single spending bill.

"We're back in business," said Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., who is cosponsoring the bill with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

Meanwhile, the president, who is traveling in China, told reporters he was disappointed by the Supreme Court ruling. "I think it's a mistake," Clinton said.