Are our farmers being subjected to a double standard?

Posted on March 23, 1999 at 21:36:58:

There's a worrisome double standard going on in Governor Glendening's budget office. A lot of the press coming out of Annapolis has centered around the governor's proposed $1 increase on cigarettes -- a proposal I've said I oppose since it first came out. Increasing any kind of taxes when the state is enjoying a major surplus is ridiculous to say the least.

The governor counters that an increased tobacco tax is the only way for him to fund some projects and programs included in his massive budget. Yet, his Secretary of the Maryland Department of Budget and Management turned around March 10 and wrote a less than glaring review of a bill I am co-sponsoring with Senator Thomas "Mac" Middleton (D-Charles) that will help our area tobacco farmers.

Senate Bill 685 would allocate 5 percent of the tobacco settlement money to the farmers who have been devastated by a growing decline in profits. This is one of the most significant pieces of legislation that will help our farmers coming out up in the General Assembly session this year. I've said it before and I'll keep saying it; our tobacco farmers need all of the support and help this state can give them. Tobacco farmers built Maryland, but it seems a lot of our lawmakers are conveniently forgetting this.

I'm puzzled as to the rationale behind this thinking. The governor's budget office has factored in anticipated revenue from the misguided cigarette tax increase that will pay for some of his higher education projects and programs. However, the budget office has also turned around and written to Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Chairwoman Barbara Hoffman that while SB 685 has "merit, we believe it is premature to allocate funds in this manner."

Hmm. So its premature to "allocate funds" we know are a sure thing while the governor's budget includes anticipated revenue from an increased cigarette tax that is not so certain. Hence, the double standard.

The governor has appeared willing to bend to farmers who wish to switch from farming tobacco to "alternative crops." To those who want to continue to farm tobacco, the governor has been non-committal.

Being a Democrat for my more than two decades in public service, I have seen one of my party's core constituencies running from the party for several years now. The tobacco farmers have rightfully felt hurt and rejected by Governor Glendening's views towards the work they do. For the past five years, Maryland and its governor have appeared to be very much anti-tobacco. And there's no way getting around this: If you're anti-tobacco, you're anti-tobacco farmer.

Yet those who detest smoking and those who profit from a still legal product, are also the same people who hate over-development. But you can't have both. If you get rid of tobacco and its farmers, you encourage over development.

I've listened to these farmers and they don't want to hear about "alternative crops." They want to continue to farm tobacco, which is still a very profitable crop.

How profitable? According to a Maryland Department of Agriculture expert, "tobacco is by far the single largest per acre [profit-maker] field crop."

In 1997, 8,000 acres of tobacco were harvested for an overall value of $20,640,000, or $2,580 per acre. In 1998, 6,500 acres were harvested for a total value of $14,105,000 or $2,170 per acre. Now combine these statistics with corn, the second most valuable crop in Maryland.

In 1997, 510,000 acres of crop were harvested for an overall value of $109,962,000, or $216 per acre. In 1998, 470,000 acres were harvested for an overall profit of $102,460 or $218 per acre. In 1997, 35,950 acres of vegetables were harvested for an overall value of $41,679,000 or $1,159 per acre.

Governor Glendening has received raves from me numerous times because of his Smart Growth initiatives and other environmentally-friendly programs. Yet he compromises Smart Growth by turning his back on the farmers.

If we don't find a way to keep these people in business -- which SB 685 surely will -- we're going to lose our farmers. They may love their land, but if they can't do what they and their ancestors going back to pre-Colonial days have been doing, aren't allowed to continue to do, they'll sell their homes to developers.

Creating education programs to stop smoking is appropriate. But we can't fund something like that while leaving our tobacco farmers out of the financial scenario.

I became even more frustrated by the way our farmers are being treated by other lawmakers in Maryland when I saw what Virginia did for its farmers recently. Virginia's farmers will receive 50 percent of the settlement money after a proposal sailed through Virginia's House and Senate. The bill is expected to be signed into law by Governor Gilmore.

So Virginia's lawmakers did the right thing by helping their farmers. Meanwhile, our farmers wait and wait to see whether Maryland's legislators follow Virginia's example and do what's right for our farmers?

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