Compromise would divide tobacco funds among counties
FRANKFORT- Despite opposition from the Kentucky Farm Bureau, the House budget committee last night approved a compromise bill that would divide much of the tobacco-settlement money among counties rather than concentrating it in statewide efforts to help f
The new version of House Bill 611 also would set aside $2.5 million to leverage 10 times that amount for programs designed to preserve farmland, including a statewide effort and a relatively new Fayette County one called ``purchase of development rights.'' Under it, the government pays farmers not to develop their land.
Rep. Roger Thomas, D-Smiths Grove, chairman of the House Agriculture and Small Business Committee, voiced disappointment after the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee signed off on the compromise with only four opposing votes.
``I'd be less than candid if I said I was happy about it,'' said Thomas, who favored creating a statewide board, instead of county-level boards, to decide how the money would be best spent.
Thomas said the issue is not settled. ``We all know a lot of things can happen between now and the end of March. It has to survive on the House floor and ... I'm not up to speed as to what the Senate's view on this issue is.''
David Beck, with the Kentucky Farm Bureau, also said he was disappointed. He and some legislators who opposed the compromise argued that setting up the local boards has the potential for a bureaucratic nightmare.
Beck compared the compromise to ``the chief bread winner coming home on Friday afternoon with a paycheck for the week and dividing it among all the members of the family.''
The compromise calls for creating a legislative panel to oversee the counties' spending, but Beck said he does not have confidence that money always will be used for agriculture's benefit.
Rep. Pete Worthington, D-Washington, had been pushing a plan to return the settlement money to the counties most affected by the tobacco crisis. He said he was happy with the compromise.
Gov. Paul Patton has proposed that half of the money Kentucky gets through the next two years from the national settlement with cigarette manufacturers go to help Kentucky farmers. His plan had called for statewide oversight of the agriculture efforts.
Under Patton's proposal, the other half would go to a variety of programs, including early-childhood education, health programs and funding more endowed professorships at state universities. The bill passed last night doesn't affect those projects.
Earlier in the day, Patton said he was not familiar with details of the compromise.
At issue last night was the money to help farmers about $184 million that Kentucky has either already received or will get over the next two years.
Under the bill approved last night, $40 million would supplement payments to tobacco farmers and quota holders under the so-called Phase Two a smaller pot of money cigarette manufacturers agreed to pay farmers.
Kentucky tobacco farmers and quota holders got about $112 million under Phase Two payments last year, but payments this year are expected to drop to $75 million because of a severe quota cut.
One-third of the remaining money, about $48 million, would be sent to counties based on their current dependence on tobacco, under a complex formula. This money would be allocated by boards created in each county.
But that formula ignores other agriculture interests that are also suffering, like dairy and grain farmers, said Rep. Rob Wilkey, D-Franklin, who opposed the bill.
Another third, or $48 million, would be controlled by a new, nine-member state board. It would use the money for market development, environmental programs, agricultural initiatives like fish farms and $2.5 million for debt service for the statewide ``purchase of agricultural conservation easements'' program and a similar effort in Fayette County.
House Democratic Whip Joe Barrows of Versailles, who participated in negotiations that produced the compromise, said the debt service would free up $25 million for the two preservation programs.
The remaining $48 million would be split between the counties and the state. Unlike the first $48 million to counties, the spending of this money would have to be approved by the state board.