Thursday, February 28, 2002

Tobacco farmers' fund eyed for budget




By Andrew Welsh-Huggins
The Associated Press

        COLUMBUS — To balance the state budget, Gov. Bob Taft has proposed using all of the money — about $32 million over the next two years — from a fund that helps tobacco farmers hurt by slowing production.

        The proposal is part of Mr. Taft's plan, introduced Wednesday, for how to spend Ohio's share next year and in 2004 of the 1998 national settlement with major tobacco companies. Ohio is receiving about $10 billion over 25 years.

        The state previously approved a spending plan for 2001 and 2002.

        Mr. Taft said the money from the Southern Ohio Agricultural and Community Development Trust Fund is needed to help patch a $1.5 billion budget deficit.

        The proposal upset Doug White, the No. 2 Republican in the GOP-controlled Senate. Mr. White, a southern Ohio farmer who still grows two acres of burley tobacco, said the fund was an easy target because of the negative image of tobacco farmers.

        He said he doubts much can be done to restore the funding.

        “We're the dead dog laying in the middle of the road,” Mr. White said Wednesday. “There are very few who care beyond a certain level.”

        In December, Mr. Taft signed a bill tapping about $260 million in tobacco money to fix the deficit.

        On Wednesday, Mr. Taft's budget director, Tom Johnson, presented details of that bill to the Senate Finance Committee.

        In addition to using the tobacco farmers' money, Mr. Taft proposes taking about $224 million from the Tobacco Use Prevention and Cessation Trust Fund, aimed at reducing smoking, particularly among children and minorities.

        Mr. Taft also proposed taking about $1.9 million from a third fund that provides money for public health programs. That would leave the Public Health Priorities Trust Fund with about $6 million.

        Settlement money to be spent on education and research was not cut.

        The tobacco farmers' fund received about $36 million over the last two years. But the executive director of the foundation overseeing the farmers' money said he was disappointed by the plan for the next two years.

        “We're willing to share a portion of the pain, but we'd like to see some proportionality,” Don Branson said. “Taking 100 percent from us, zero percent from others doesn't seem to be very equitable.”

       



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