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Task force looks for ways to help tobacco farmers

Sunday, September 26, 1999


COLUMBUS - When Ohio's top leaders began divvying up the state's share of the national tobacco settlement, an Ohio tobacco farmer sat alongside them.

Never mind that she might be eligible for some of the money. Rep. Rose Vesper was there because she's a tobacco farmer and she understands the politics and economics of one of Ohio's poorest regions - the southern and southwestern counties that produced 17.9 million pounds of tobacco last year alone.

"The idea of not growing tobacco is very scary to a lot of these people," said Vesper, a Republican from New Richmond, a small town just east of Cincinnati. "This is their livelihood and has been for a very long time."

Along with the Senate president, House speaker and state attorney general, Vesper is part of a 15-member Tobacco Settlement Task Force that Gov. Bob Taft appointed to recommend how Ohio should spend its $10.1 billion share of the settlement money.

On Wednesday, the panel is scheduled to meet and vote on its recommendations to spend $5.7 billion of the money on school buildings and technology, $2.3 billion on public health, $1.8 billion on biomedical research and $25 million for a special law enforcement fund controlled by the attorney general.

Mindful that Ohio is the nation's seventh-ranking tobacco producer, the panel has proposed spending the remaining $229 million to help the state's tobacco-producing counties. The money would go into a newly created Southern Ohio Agricultural and Community Development Trust Fund designed to help tobacco-dependent communities by making "grants and loans to individuals, public agencies and privately owned companies," according to the panel's recommendations.

Taft supports the recommendations, which were crafted under the supervision of one of his top aides, Tom Johnson, director of the Office of Budget and Management.

Vesper, however, wants an even better deal for tobacco growers.

The task force recommended that the agricultural trust fund end after 15 years. Vesper wants to remove that "sunset" clause and replace it with a requirement that a new committee be formed to decide whether the funds should continue. If the counties still have not rebounded, she said, the money should continue to flow.

Task force members are weighing Vesper's proposal, and the recommendations still require approval from the Ohio General Assembly.

Although the tobacco industry's once powerful lobby is losing its clout, support for tobacco farmers remains strong - even among anti-smoking advocates.

"Just as we want to assist individuals who are addicted to tobacco, we need to assist those regions that are dependent on it, too," said Carter Headrick, regional advocacy representative for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "The tobacco industry and tobacco farmers are two separate issues. They need to be treated that way."

Jennifer Price, a spokeswoman for the Coalition for a Healthier Ohio, also supports helping the tobacco farmer. Still, Price said she was surprised to learn that Vesper is a part-time tobacco farmer. Asked whether Vesper should sit on the panel, Price replied, "I'd have to think about that more."

Vesper said House Speaker Jo Ann Davidson recommended her appointment because she understands the tobacco grower's point of view and she emphasized that her federally controlled allotment to grow tobacco is "very small" and said it is doubtful that she will benefit from the funds, if they are approved.

In Vesper's district and other often-isolated tobacco-growing counties, tobacco has been one of the few economically steady factors, as coal mines played out, factories closed and nontobacco farms reverted to scrub, then forest.

In addition, a couple of Ohio House districts in top tobacco-growing counties could be up for grabs by either party. That means General Assembly leaders seeking to hold or gain a House majority must take Ohio's tobacco counties into account in writing legislation.

Neil Clark, a former tobacco industry lobbyist, said the industry's hefty campaign contributions have been unable to overcome recent revelations that tobacco executives misled the public about health risks.

"Tobacco firms usually had great contacts with the Ohio General Assembly and the administration," Clark said, often by sponsoring conferences put on by legislative organizations such as the National Conference of State Legislators and the Council of State Governments. Such donations, commonly referred to as "soft money," face fewer regulations and are often more difficult to trace.

According to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, tobacco's campaign donations in Ohio and other states have followed the party in power.

During the 1991-92 and 1993-94 election cycles, campaign donations from tobacco firms to Ohio legislators and state political parties were almost evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. Beginning in 1995 - convinced that GOP dominance was a long-term trend - the tobacco industry contributed 77 percent of its legislative and political party contributions to the Ohio Republican Party, according to the center.

For decades, tobacco firms seemed to win the legislative fights they entered.

A dozen years ago, they convinced legislators to shave 1 cent from a 5-cent-per-cigarette-pack tax increase proposed by then-Gov. Richard F. Celeste.

In 1989, the lobbies stopped dead a proposed 10-cent-per-pack increase, also sought by Celeste, in part because such a rise would virtually guarantee that many Cincinnati smokers would buy their cigarettes in low-tax Kentucky, bypassing Ohio's tax collector.

And not until a December 1992 state budget crunch - 61 years after Ohio began taxing cigarettes - did Ohio also begin to tax noncigarette tobacco products, such as cigars, snuff and pipe- and chewing tobacco. (The same 1992 tax package increased by 6 cents, to 24 cents, Ohio's per-pack tax on cigarettes.)

Clark said he ended his affiliation with Philip Morris when the firm asked him to help defeat efforts to ban smoking in public places.

"They said, "You have to do it, you work for us,' " Clark said. "And I said, "No I don't, you're fired.' At the time, I was a heavy smoker. I believe smoking is an individual choice, but there was a lot of evidence that second-hand smoke is harmful."

Those who breathe second-hand smoke, he said, often have no choice.

Clark, considered one of the Statehouse's most effective lobbyists, now represents the American Lung Association of Ohio and the American Heart Association.

Likewise, the winds were also shifting inside state government. True, Celeste, governor from 1983 through 1990, had wanted to tax tobacco more heavily.

But Celeste didn't ban smoking on state property, and the customary chrome ashtrays stood outside the elevators leading to Celeste's upper-floor office in the state's Vern Riffe Center for Government and the Arts, a building completed in 1988.

It was Celeste's Republican successor, Gov. George V. Voinovich, who in January 1993 signed an executive order banning smoking in state buildings - an order extended to House meeting areas in 1995 by Republicans when they recaptured the House after 22 years out of power.

By 1996, tobacco firms lost a major legislative feud when they failed to win support for a bill to circumvent local anti-smoking laws. And the tobacco task force denied a cigarette company's request for a seat on the panel that would dole out the public health money.

Ohio's efforts to help tobacco farmers mirror efforts in other tobacco-producing states.

Virginia and North Carolina have each recommended that a hefty portion of their settlement funds go to farmers.

Virginia's governor signed legislation that earmarks 10 percent of each annual payment for youth smoking-prevention programs. Half of the remaining money will be set aside to help farmers.

In North Carolina, the nation's No. 2 tobacco producer, a new law earmarks half of the Tar Heel State's settlement for tobacco-dependent communities.

Farmers also are eligible for a separate pool of tobacco money. In Ohio, tobacco growers are also in line for a separate, $70 million pot of money that also stemmed from the national tobacco settlement.

Under the companion agreement, tobacco companies would give Ohio growers the money over 12 years to alleviate the expected financial stress from lost tobacco sales and help them move into new kinds of cash crops. State officials are expected to finish the basic outline of the eligibility formula by Oct. 15.

Along with Vesper, Sen. Doug White, a southwestern Ohio Republican and a tobacco farmer, would be eligible for some of the money.

E-mail: Phone: (216) 999-4213

E-mail: Phone: (216) 999-4213

©1999 THE PLAIN DEALER. Used with permission.

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