How Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg Keeps The Government Out of Your Business (But Not His)



THURSDAY UPDATE: A reader pointed out this 2012 Denver Post story about Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg that you might find relevant to discussion of his $628,000+ in federal cash subsidy payments:

Poor Coloradans who apply for monthly cash assistance would first have to pass a drug test before receiving benefits under a bill that cleared a House committee Thursday.

House Bill 1046, sponsored by Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, [Pols emphasis] requires anyone applying for benefits under the federally funded Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, or TANF, to first pay the $45 cost of taking a drug test.

Those who pass the drug test would be reimbursed by the state and could get TANF benefits. Those who fail, though, would be denied reimbursement and any benefits and could not reapply for TANF again for a year.

Those who fail a second time wouldn't be eligible to reapply for three years.

"If you can spend money on drugs, why do you need the government's check?" Sonnenberg asked members of the House Health and Environment Committee. [Pols emphasis]

Indeed, Senator! You first. Original post follows.


UPDATE #2: None of former Sen. Greg Brophy's $113,000 in federal crop subsidy payments came from melons, which is good because he shoots those. 


UPDATE: Republican Rep. J. Paul Brown, a top 2016 Democratic target and another co-sponsor of legislation to repeal Colorado's health insurance exchange and subsidies, pulled down over $180,000 in direct cash subsidy payments from the federal government between 1995 and 2012–almost $130,000 of which was subsidy payments for wool and "sheep meat."

Got that? No health insurance subsidy for you, but sheep meat subsidies for J. Paul Brown. That's going to make for one hell of a direct mail piece.


Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg.

Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg.

Republican state Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling is one of the louder voices in the Colorado Senate GOP delegation, both literally and figuratively. Sonnenberg can be reliably counted upon to introduce some of the more combative pieces of legsialation in any given session, and he hasn't disappointed this year as sponsor of bills to roll back Colorado's renewable energy standards and to speculatively "compensate" mineral rights owners if local governments prohibit fracking operations on the surface. On the latter effort, the Craig Daily Press quoted Sonnenberg in typical form:

Sonnenberg said if counties or local government entities cannot afford to pay for what they take, they shouldn’t make regulations limiting mineral rights.

“If you can’t buy it, don’t ban it,” Sonnenberg said.

Got that? The last thing you need is the government up in your business, folks. Let the free market reign!

And then we got to thinking about it: what does Jerry Sonnenberg do for a living?

Jerry Sonnenberg is a Colorado native who has been farming and ranching in northeastern Colorado his entire life. He continues to live and work on the same farm that both his father and he were raised on growing wheat, corn, sunflowers, millet and cattle.

Jerry Sonnenberg is a farmer. Certainly an honorable profession and an important part of Colorado's economy. But in modern American agriculture, as America's growing resource-disconnected urban population is increasingly oblivious to, there's a catch.

The catch is government subsidies.

You see, the agricultural commodities market as we know it today is very far from what you'd call "free." The U.S. Department of Agriculture closely monitors the supply and demand of farm products, and pays billions of dollars each year in direct subsidy payments to farmers to protect their incomes from price volatility. We could write a very long post on how this all works, but the overall goal is to keep food prices in the United States low while keeping farmers gainfully employed. There is a great deal of debate about the efficacy and true beneficiaries of farm subsidies, but the political power wielded by farm states has protected the status quo for the last two decades.

The amount paid to farmers by the USDA in direct subsidies is a public record. The Environmental Working Group maintains a searchable index of receipients of direct farm subsidies since 1995. So we clicked here, and entered the name Jerry Sonnenberg:


That's right! Jerry Sonnenberg received almost SIX HUNDRED TWENTY-NINE THOUSAND DOLLARS in direct cash subsidy payments from the USDA between 1995 and 2012. Clicking through to the breakdown of his subsidy payments shows that over $300,000 was paid to Sonnenberg in wheat crop subsidies alone, with smaller amounts for land conservation and periodic crop disaster declarations.

Again, our purpose here is not to disparage the practice of subsidizing farmers to stabilize the agricultural products market. But when you think about things like Sonnenberg's co-sponsorship of legislation to repeal Colorado's health insurance marketplace, which could deprive thousands of Coloradans of their subsidies to buy health insurance…well, how is that not as utterly hypocritical as it looks?

We have no doubt that Sonnenberg has a blowhard answer ready, but it is what it is. And the questions this kind of hypocrisy provokes are, in our view, pretty fundamental to debates he is having right now at the state capitol.

Bonus round: search for the names Greg Brophy and Mark Hillman! Or try some others.

49 Community Comments, Facebook Comments

  1. davebarnes says:

    Wow! $600+K.
    That is $40K per year.
    Jerry is rich.

    Now, I am against ALL farm subsidies, but this attack article is just cowpie headline grabbing.

  2. DawnPatrol says:

    A Republican grifter, fraud, hypocrite, backslider and liar?

    Quick, put him in a bell jar, get him on display! What a RARITY!

  3. Big Time says:

    Don't let J. Paul Brown pull the wool over your eyes.

  4. Big Time says:

    Free (U.S. Treasury Sponsored) Markets for me and nothing for thee. 

  5. DawnPatrol says:

    This is MY PRIVATE GUBMINT TEAT! You peons aren't deserving like me (white property owner), and can't have any!

    • Big Time says:

      That's right – I feed you (using your taxes), without me (and your taxes), there would be no you (and your taxes) and my subsidies (your taxes). 

      • MichaelBowman says:

        I'm a fifth-generation rural Coloradan so it gives me no pleasure to have to read things like this blog and suffer the hypocrisy of the GOP leadership.  They tell us to stop complaining about farmers with our mouths full – but are we really feeding the world?

        American Farmers Say They Feed the World, But Do They?  – a great story by NPR. 

        Our obscene use of fresh water and coal-fired power to grown federally-subsidized crops in rural Colorado is a discussion we need to have – it's long overdue.

        • FrankUnderwood says:

          They only consider it to be mooching when it's someone else who's at the trough. When it goes into their own pockets, it's called "economic development."

          Just remember, "You are entitled to absolutely nothing!"

        • Big Time says:

          A big chunk of those subsidies, along with a ton of food, go to waste:

          "A report released Wednesday shows that about 60 million metric tons of food is wasted a year in the United States, with an estimated value of $162 billion. About 32 million metric tons of it end up in municipal landfills, at a cost of about $1.5 billion a year to local governments."

          Hey GOP, looking for waste, fraud and abuse? You can start in your own pumpkin patch.


          • FrankUnderwood says:

            Yet around the world, people continue to starve. You got to love the way the free market system matches supply with demand.

            • Big Time says:

              Yeah, we need a 21st Century Free Market … and the GOP ain't the ones to make that happen seeing they want to take us back to the 19th century. Here's another snip from that report that'll make your blood boil:

              "The report estimates that a third of all the food produced in the world is never consumed, and the total cost of that food waste could be as high as $400 billion a year. … Food waste is not only a social cost, but it contributes to growing environmental problems like climate change, experts say, with the production of food consuming vast quantities of water, fertilizer and land. The fuel that is burned to process, refrigerate and transport it also adds to the environmental cost."

  6. ElliotFladen says:

    "and to speculatively "compensate" mineral rights owners if local governments prohibit fracking operations on the surface."

    Try actually reading SB93.  Under it there is a formalized process for determining the valuation of the mineral interest at issue before either the relevant Board of Commissioners/Jury.  Given that the process is . . . again . . . FORMALIZED with evidence taken, calling it as a bill designed to "speculatively compensate mineral rights owners" is utter bullshit.

    • bullshit! says:

      Yeah, it's not like oil and gas is subject to price speculation or anything.

      Christ, are you really this stupid? Aren't you a lawyer?

      • dustpuppy says:

        With Flaken, and his infection of Republicanism (yes, it's been identified as a disease), he's officially a Grade-A, USDA inspected moron.



      • ElliotFladen says:

        What are you complaining about here: that a person will buy a property at market-value with the intent of developing it or that the local governmental entity will speculate as to the value of the rights that it is depriving the property owner of when it engages in a preliminary valuation determination under SB93?

        • MichaelBowman says:

          Property owners are denied their right to develop their energy resources everyday, Elliot. There are thousands upon thousands of acres across Colorado that have the ability to generate 30x the energy we use from wind and solar every day in Colorado but they go undeveloped because of either transmission constraints or archaic regularity policies that bias centralized fossil-based fuel sources. Can we have that discussion?

          • ElliotFladen says:

            And if you deny people their property rights you need to pay for those rights that you are denying.  Not that complicated. 

            • Progressicat says:

              But we don't, do we Mr. Fladen?

              I could make more money with a liquor shop!  Sorry, your property is next to an elementary school.

              I could make twice the rent I am now with an extra two stories!  Sorry, we don't allow buildings over 30' in this area.

              I could make a killing by dynamiting up the uranium under my townhouse!  Sorry, that's just nuts.

              As you know (although I suspect it galls your inner Ayn Rand), all regulation is not taking even when it makes exercising certain rights next to impossible.  Not everyone gets to do whatever they want and not everyone's booboo gets kissed.

            • MichaelBowman says:

              You're right. It's not that complicated. Should I be able to sue Tri-State Generation and Transmission because I can't develop my wind and solar resources (which are quantifiable)?

    • ajb says:

      Elliot, There may be rules, there may be a formla, but nobody knows how much oil/gas/whatever is going to come out of the ground until they drill a well. The process may not be arbitrary, but it is speculative.

      • PKolbenschlag says:

        It is speculative.  

        No one knows how much tight gas or oil is in the ground until one drills.  It is not a conventional pool of oil.  

        It is a vindictive attempt to play political gotcha.  It is unworkable, it is a boon to attorneys and speculators and a nightmare as far as actual governance and policy goes.  

        Fladen either has very little clue of which he speaks or he doesn't care.  If he responds, it will be to go running off  in some other direction in hopes we will all follow on the EF rabbit hunt.  

        • ElliotFladen says:

          The rights still have a fair market value which the owner is being deprived of. 

          • PKolbenschlag says:

            No, they are ephemeral, speculative and not 'proven' until they are, well 'proven' (hence the use of that word and the use of terms like oil and gas EXPLORATION).  

            Furthermore, if you can show me where a mineral right guarantees the use of a certain, any available, any future, or any particular technology please do so.  

            This is a bill to enrich unscrupulous attorneys and rank speculating, to take money from the public treasury in order to fatten private pockets, and to further pad white-shoed lawyers' already fat portfolios.   

    • JeffcoBlue says:

      Elliot what if the minerals were valued based on the price last year before OPEC decided to put the frackers out of business? Would the local governments be able to get the money back?

      Serious question for the guy who apparently doesn't believe the oil and gas market is driven by "speculation."

      • ElliotFladen says:

        I am in favor of amending a future version of sb93 to base the value of the rights on a rolling five year average. 

        • ajb says:

          At current oil prices, the oil in the ground is worth $0 (it cost as much to produce as you could sell it for). The, the only value of the mineral right is purely speculative. Because you think that oil is still valued at >$100/bbl (5 year avg), it logically follows that you support taxpayers subsidizing speculation. Bravo.

          In a perverse way, it also explains why you defend those who collect govt farm subsidies, yet rail against others collect health care subsidies – the original topic of this thread before….Benghazi!

    • mamajama55 says:

      Yeah, I do read bills. SB93 was a doozy. 

      The owner may challenge the preliminary value determination on the basis that the award is too low, but the local government is not permitted to challenge the preliminary value determination on the basis that the award is too high.

      The local government may proceed with implementing the ordinance, resolution, rule, regulation, or other form of official policy concerning mineral extraction operations that constitutes the regulatory impairment if it tenders the full amount of the preliminary value determination to the owner within 7 business days after the hearing

      So yes, it is a "formalized process" – The owner of the mineral rights basically gets to declare that value, and be compensated within 7 business days after his/her claim is heard. The owner may complain that his rights are valued too low, but the government is not allowed to challenge that the owner is trying to screw the pooch by setting the value too highly.

      A sweet deal for mineral rights owners- a terrible deal for any municipal government, and of course, for nearby human, plant, and animal life which gets to contend with the pollution, truck or pipeline transport of the product, etc. 

  7. Diogenesdemar says:

    I'd probably raise a couple of melons, too . . .

    . . . if I could get a $113K to support a few of my other hobbies!

  8. Canines says:

    Bruddah, can you spare a shepherd's pie?

  9. MichaelBowman says:

    Interestingly enough, Mark Hillman's rant in last week's Wray Gazette, "Capitol Review", is sub-titled, "Easy access to entitlements undermines America's work ethics".  The essay is two colums wide and 15 inches long, rife with all of the red-meat cattle calls: "spoiling our society from within", "witnessing rotting fruits", "employers must compete against wages government pays for doing nothing!!", "people are more comfortable sitting on their couch waiting for a handout!", "our entitlement state means more Ameicans than ever are needy" 

    No where in the article does he mention the $3.64 billion in farm subsidies that flow to eastern Colorado – nor does he mention the $501,759 he has personally received in federal payments.  If you look at the breakdown of his payments, $130,133 of his total is for "conservation subsidies", which is most likely money he is paid to retire his land from production; he is receiving payment for his land doing nothingSitting idleOn the proverbial couch.

    I wish I was making this up….

  10. Davie says:

    Heck, if he's getting $628k in welfare payments, taxpayers should demand that Sonnenberg not only has to take a drug test, but get a full cavity search too.  Who knows what he might be hiding?

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