Republicans in the North Carolina House of Representatives are taking aim at three trust funds set up to disperse half of North Carolina’s share of the national tobacco settlement, all in the name of balancing the state budget.
The money flowing into the state from this settlement is part of the agreement the major tobacco companies made with states suing those firms, under which those companies promise to pay hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars to these states. One of the guiding principles behind this settlement was that states would likely be on the hook for a majority of the medical bills incurred by smokers, who were using often-addictive products manufactured and marketed by these tobacco companies.
In an ideal world, that might have been justification for the lawsuits and the ultimate settlement. The problem is, as so often is the case when government gets its hands on money, those dollars coming into the state have not been set aside for or used for these medical bills. Instead, most states have simply used the money short-sightedly, closing immediate budget shortfalls while ignoring the longer-term problems which lead to these budgetary shortfalls.
That is a little like a household living way over its head on massive debt, and just before financial ruin comes crashing down a rich uncle dies and leaves a large inheritance to the household. Instead of taking a hard look at what is needed to cut expenses, raise income, or both, the household believes its troubles are over and continues living on borrowed — or inherited — money, until not even the inheritance can stave off the bill collectors.
Two other guiding principles behind the tobacco settlement, at least in tobacco belt states, was to use some of that money to spur economic development in communities being shaken by the dwindling economic power of tobacco farming and related local businesses, and to use some of the money for anti-tobacco education.
North Carolina legislators, to their credit, have done that. The state set up three trust funds: the Health and Wellness Trust Fund, the Tobacco Trust Fund, and the Golden LEAF Foundation. The first of those organizations uses tobacco settlement money for public health and education regarding the dangers of tobacco use.
Those in support of taking this money and dumping it into the general fund say local health departments could, and perhaps should, be doing this work, and we tend to agree. Although we say that with the understanding that adding to the existing workload of health departments means additional state funding should be forthcoming, although to a lesser degree than what would be saved by taking this money from the Health and Wellness Trust Fund.
The Tobacco Trust Fund and the Golden LEAF Foundation? Those are another story entirely, and there are ample local examples of this.
Randy and Angela Shur, two Surry County residents, are a farming couple, with a variety of fruit trees in their orchards. As is the case with many family farmers, they work long and hard hours in the cold of winter and the hot, sweltering summer, with no guarantee they will break even in a given year. The family was on the verge of ending at least part of what they do — growing apples — because they couldn’t make enough to justify the cost of that part of their operation.
Utilizing a grant from the Tobacco Trust Fund, Angela Shur was able to expand a pie-making and selling business which has kept the family not only growing apple trees, but has expanded their work. More importantly, she now employees four other people in the business.
Those funds made a direct, positive, long-term effect on the local economy.
And the Golden LEAF Foundation? Take a drive to Pilot Mountain to look at Pilot Mountain Pride. That organization has the very real possibility of helping to reverse the local trend of family farms dwindling, because its presence has opened up new markets for local farmers, teaching them how to effectively switch from tobacco farming to producing growing.
And then Pilot Mountain Pride finds markets for what is grown here, allowing farmers to make enough to keep their operations afloat, and offering hope to the next generation of those families that there is a future on the family farm.
While the number of organizations and people involved in making Pilot Mountain Pride a success is too long a list to include here, it is equally accurate to say without a significant grant from Golden LEAF, Pride might not exist.
Those stories have been replicated time and again across North Carolina, and we hope our state legislators will have the good sense to leave those two trust funds alone. It’s rare when something set up by government to spend new money actually achieves what it was created to do. With the money granted by these two agencies doing just that — creating jobs, reshaping rural communities — the state can ill afford to have that money stolen by the General Assembly leaders who should be tackling the causes of the shortfall head-on, rather than applying band-aids.
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