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Candidates tangle at ag forum

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GREENWICH — During an hour-long forum about agriculture at a high school auditorium in this Washington County town, the two candidates on the stage only managed to really disagree about issues that had the least to do with farming.

All politics, after all, is local, especially when it comes to farming in the north country. Republican Matthew A. Doheny and U.S. Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, agreed often on federal matters that affect farmers, while parting ways on the estate tax and on Social Security.

“It’s great to see one of the most competitive races in the country focus on agriculture,” said Julie C. Suarez, lobbyist for the New York Farm Bureau.

On Social Security, Mr. Doheny said that he is in favor of means testing and raising the retirement age by two years for future retirees who are around his age. Mr. Doheny is 42. People who were born in 1960 or later will receive full Social Security benefits at age 67.

Means testing is a way of determining whether a recipient has an income high enough so that they don’t need government help, or as much government help.

Mr. Doheny said that right now, private accounts are off the table, but declined to say whether he philosophically agrees or disagrees with them.

“Maybe in 50 years, as a retired congressman,” the issue could come up, Mr. Doheny said.

Mr. Owens, on the other hand, is against raising the Social Security retirement age and said that the program already does means testing and he’s against making the testing more strict.

On the estate tax, Mr. Doheny got a round of applause from the audience — some of whom waved Doheny signs outside before the event — when he said he would eliminate the estate tax. Any estate more than $5 million is taxed 30 percent. But those limits are set to expire soon, so that estates of $1 million or more are taxed at 55 percent. It’s an important issue to farmers, whose assets — land, buildings and equipment — are seldom liquid.

Mr. Owens, on the other hand, wants the federal government to maintain the estate tax at its current levels.

His law firm specialized in estate planning, so if it’s set up the right way, the exemption can be raised to $10 million, Mr. Owens said.

Mr. Doheny chided him for taking that position.

“We might have to go see Mr. Owens’s firm to make it $10 million,” Mr. Doheny said.

“First, on behalf of my firm, thank you for the plug,” Mr. Owens said in response.

The two men also differed slightly on subsidies. Both men agreed that ethanol subsidies should be eliminated, but Mr. Owens said he believes that subsidies for sectors like wind should be extended, while Mr. Doheny does not. Mr. Doheny likened the programs to “throwing good money after bad.”

Mr. Owens said that the most important issue facing farmers was passage of the farm bill. The current law expires at the end of September. The Senate has passed its version, and the House Agriculture Committee, with the support of Mr. Owens, also passed its own version.

But House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, has so far refused to bring the bill up for a House vote. Agriculture advocates say that if the bill expires, the farm law will revert back to the programs that were in place during the 1940s.

Both men said that that was unacceptable, and Mr. Doheny later said that Mr. Boehner knows where he stands on the matter.

Mr. Owens blames partisan politics for holding up the farm bill. In his race for re-election, he frequently touts his relationship with fellow New York Republicans in the House of Representatives. He told the crowd at the Greenwich Central High School auditorium that he agreed with U.S. Reps. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook, and Peter Welch, D-Vt., to vote together as much as possible on amendments to the farm legislation.

Mr. Welch’s office did not respond to comment last week, and while Mr. Gibson’s office declined to make him available for an interview, he did confirm in an email that he worked closely with Mr. Owens and Mr. Welch.

“Agriculture politics are largely regional, not partisan and Representatives in the Northeast need to stick together to ensure our family farms survive and flourish,” Mr. Gibson said. “Bill, Peter and I worked closely together to coordinate dairy policy that provides security while facilitating growth and profitability for our farmers.”

Mr. Doheny said that he, too, would work with members of the other party.

“When you’re out in the business world, getting 100 percent of what you want doesn’t work,” he said. “You need to compromise.”

Mr. Owens and Mr. Doheny both laid claim to the mantle of the person who best understands the needs of farmers and businesses.

Mr. Doheny helped turn around troubled companies for financial firms during a decade-long career in New York City, he noted. Mr. Doheny also owns North Country Capital LLC in Watertown.

Mr. Owens pointed out that he was on the board of NBT Bank and as an attorney, he represented farms in the Clinton County area.

Said Mr. Owens: “I have a lot of experience with the things that happen on Main Street.”

Said Mr. Doheny: “We need to put ideas into action to kick-start the economy. We’re going in the wrong direction, and we need a change.”

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