By Bruce Schreiner
The Associated Press
LOUISVILLE - A Democratic candidate for agriculture commissioner Tuesday supported an increase in the state's cigarette tax during a forum before Kentucky's most influential farm group.
Roy Massey said the tax, second-lowest in the nation at 3 cents a pack, should be increased to a quarter per pack, and part of the additional money should go to tobacco farmers.
The proposal made Massey, of Frankfort, stand apart. No one among seven other commissioner candidates advocated a higher cigarette tax during the forum before the Kentucky Farm Bureau board of directors.
Kentucky is the nation's leading burley tobacco producer. The Kentucky Farm Bureau has opposed any proposal to raise the state cigarette tax unless all the money is earmarked for agriculture.
Massey, a former deputy agriculture commissioner, said a 22-cent increase would raise $120 million a year. He said $40 million should go to tobacco farmers as direct payments. Another $40 million would be put into a fund for health insurance. The rest would be devoted to local area development districts for job training, he said.
Democratic candidate Steve Meredith, a Hardin County farmer, said Massey's idea would hurt sales at retail cigarette outlets that now draw smokers from neighboring states with higher taxes.
"I'm not certain that if you increase cigarette taxes a dime, a quarter or any other number that we would see the net revenue projections that are being offered out there," Meredith said.
He also questioned whether growers would actually pocket any extra money, since the direct payments envisioned by Massey would be offset by a proportionate decrease in the amount growers receive from Kentucky's share of a national legal settlement with cigarette companies, Meredith said.
Massey said a higher tax has a health benefit as well. "It will save, literally, thousands of lives because it will be a deterrent for teen smoking," he said.
All the candidates said the state needs to expand markets, ensure food safety and squeeze every dollar possible from farm products. They vowed to work to preserve tobacco settlement money to diversify agriculture.
Meredith cited his own farm in Hardin County as an example of how growers can diversify. He gradually shifted from producing tobacco to flowers, which now accounts for more than half his farm income, he said.
Democrat Barney Hornback of Elizabethtown, a farmer who was a longtime administrator in the Department of Agriculture, said he would put more emphasis on products with which Kentucky has a natural advantage - timber, horses, cattle, tobacco and corn, among others - and on local processing.
Leonard "Buck" Beasley, one of two Republicans in the race, said he would try to forge a closer relationship between hay producers and the equine industry.
"I'd like to see Kentucky hay be the only hay that's bought and used in Kentucky," said Beasley, of Bloomfield.
The other Republican, former University of Kentucky basketball player Richie Farmer, who is in his first political race, said he had no preconceptions other than the need for teamwork to improve agriculture.
"Coach (Rick) Pitino used to teach us when we were in college that if you're willing to work hard, and everybody can work hard to try to achieve a common goal, it's unlimited what can be achieved, and that's what I will try to do as commissioner of agriculture," Farmer said.
Democrat Alice Baesler, like Massey a former department employee, said she would emphasize marketing of Kentucky products with more farmers' markets and regional growers' cooperatives. "Our farmers can really produce, we can tell by tobacco, but production without marketing is rarely successful," she said.
State Sen. Joey Pendleton of Hopkinsville cited his efforts to promote aquaculture and production of ethanol from Kentucky grains. Pendleton also said Kentucky agriculture could reap benefits from lingering concerns about America's food supply being targeted by terrorists.
"I don't know of a better way that we can ensure the consumer that they are going to have food safety than selling Kentucky-grown products," he said.
Glen Holbrook of West Liberty said he would be a champion for the small farmer. "I know what it's like not to make a profit on a small farm," he said.
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