By Monica Chen and Michael McKnight
Concerns regarding a surprise amendment to a spending bill by an influential Kentucky senator were abetted when another provision was added to help ailing North Carolina tobacco farmers.
Under pressure from N.C. senators, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., agreed to a provision to the Agriculture Appropriations Bill that will forgive a $125 million federal loan to the Flue-Cured Tobacco Cooperative Stabilization Corporation.
Most N.C. tobacco farmers grow flue-cured tobacco.
McConnell attached an amendment to the spending bill last week, giving $510 million in aid to drought-stricken burley tobacco farmers.
Although most Kentucky tobacco farmers do grow burley tobacco, only 2 to 3 percent of all tobacco grown in North Carolina is burley. Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., and Rep. Bob Etheridge, D-N.C., immediately went into action to get equal aid for the states' growers.
In an Oct. 12 letter sent to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., the 12 members of the N.C. congressional delegation requested $500 million in aid for flue-cured tobacco growers be included in a spending bill before Congress adjourns.
Brad Woodhouse, Etheridge's press secretary, said the action would allow the flue-cured tobacco corporation to cut current tobacco prices so they could sell at market, which will mean a higher quota for next year and a higher income for tobacco farmers.
Tom Sabel, a statistician with the N.C. Department of Agriculture, said quota cuts, which determine how much tobacco farmers can grow, have harmed many N.C. tobacco farmers despite a relatively good year with higher crop yields than previous seasons.
"Over the last three years, they've lost over half of their acreage due to quota cuts," Sabel said. "Anything that could get growers some financial help to alleviate the quota cuts would be helpful."
Although the $125 million amount is far below what Helms and Etheridge requested in their letter, George Holding, legislative counsel to Helms, said it is sufficient.
"Kentucky is getting a lot. Last year we merely got down payment for need," Holdings said. "And because of this, we might get full aid in two installments. We're still lobbying for more."
As Congress prepares to adjourn, the clock is ticking on whether this provision could indeed pass.
The rapidly approaching end to the 106th Congress was the original reason N.C. representatives did not propose a provision for more money to aid tobacco farmers.
But Woodhouse said he was very upset that aid for N.C. tobacco farmers was not included in the original amendment.
"Traditionally, the tobacco farmers of both crops have worked in tandem. (Etheridge) was disappointed that (McConnell) did not include us," he said.
"By gosh, if (McConnell) could get it for Kentucky, we could get it for us."
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