Groups: Tobacco money misspent
State Republicans and a conservative organization in Raleigh say grant money from the 1998 national tobacco settlement is not being spent in the right places.
The John Locke Foundation in Raleigh says the money is being wasted on projects such as the Carolina Horse Park in Hoke County.
The horse park is little more than a place for rich people to have parties, said Don Carrington, vice president of the John Locke Foundation. â€œBasically people wear funny hats and get drunk,â€ he said.
Roger Secrist, president of the Carolina Horse Park Foundation, said Carrington is â€œnot being entirely fair.â€ The park draws tens of thousands of visitors, he said, and has the potential to bring hundreds of thousands. It will also create business opportunities and new jobs in one of North Carolinaâ€™s poorest communities, Secrist said.
The Carolina Horse Park won a $200,000 grant from North Carolinaâ€™s Golden LEAF program in 2001. It is using the money for operating expenses. It has about a half-dozen equestrian events a year. This spring, one of the events will involve the U.S. Olympic equestrian team.
Golden LEAF, or Long-term Economic Advancement Foundation, is a nonprofit foundation set up in 1999 to disburse part of North Carolinaâ€™s share of the national tobacco settlement. This settlement was made between the several state attorneys general and cigarette makers to end the statesâ€™ health-related lawsuits.
North Carolina is to get $4.6 billion over 25 years. Half of that, $2.3 billion is going to Golden LEAF. The foundation pays grants from the interest the money earns.
The foundation has received nearly $189 million over the past two years. It awarded $10.1 million in grants in 2001 and $5.1 million in 2000.
State Rep. Leo Daughtry, the leader of the Republicans in the state House of Representatives, said members of his party united to vote against creation of the foundation.
Half the money should have been used on health care, Daughtry said, and half to help tobacco farmers, farm workers and tobacco allotment owners. The money could help the stateâ€™s troubled health insurance program for state employees, he said, and to pay for a prescription drug program for the elderly.
Daughtry also questions whether it is appropriate for many of the recipients to get this money. Some have limited ties to tobacco, he said.
â€œIf you want to look at tobacco-distressed communities, Iâ€™d think youâ€™d want to look where the tobacco is the backbone of the economy,â€ he said.
The proceeds have been awarded to a variety of projects throughout the state with a goal of helping in the adjustment to the declining and changing tobacco economy.
In the Cape Fear region, Golden LEAF grants have been awarded for truck-driver training in Bladen County, pine straw farming research in Moore County, a blueberry blast freezer in Bladen County, a business incubator in Robeson County and equipment upgrades at the Alamac American Knits plant in Robeson County.
In the pine straw research, for example, Environmental Impact Inc. in Aberdeen is studying how profitable pine straw can be for farmers, said Director John L. Caviness. The study is also looking at whether poultry manure, plentiful in Moore County, is a good fertilizer to increase the treesâ€™ production.
Statewide, grants have been awarded for research into a number of new farm products and research into new markets for existing farm products. It also has gone to training programs for workers and to attract industry to build warehouses and factories.
The town of Fairmont, which was built on tobacco and textiles, applied for a Golden LEAF grant but didnâ€™t get it. The town wanted $150,000 to help pay for its new community building, said Town Manager Ben Hill.
Hill said he was disappointed but not upset. â€œThe Golden LEAF foundation is trying to pick the top-priority stuff,â€ he said. â€œThings that will put those people that were affected by the tobacco loss back to work.â€
He said the foundation has made good choices.
Fairmont officials plan to try again to get some of the money, Hill said, probably for the community building but possibly for other projects.
Slush fund charge
Carrington, of the John Locke Foundation, said the projects that have been funded may be well-intentioned, but the money would have been better used to help balance the state budget and keep taxes down.
â€œWe shouldnâ€™t be having the potential of laying off important public employees like policemen to support things like the horse park,â€ he said. He calls Golden LEAF a slush fund to funnel money into home districts of elected officials.
State Sen. David Weinstein of Robeson County, a Democrat who was involved in creating the foundation, said it will be a great help to the state.
â€œThe Golden LEAF foundation in years to come will be the largest foundation in North Carolina,â€ Weinstein said.
Sen. Tony Rand of Fayette- ville, head of the Democrats in the state Senate, said the contributions to efforts such as the Carolina Horse Park are more than appropriate.
â€œNow you think about that: The Olympic team is coming to Hoke County. Thatâ€™s a phenomenal thing,â€ he said. â€œIf we can encourage that kind of thing and continue that, I think all of us know the resulting sort of spin-off industries and things around there will be significant.â€