ANNAPOLIS – Southern Maryland tobacco farmers and lawmakers asked a Senate committee Wednesday for $220 million to help cushion the expected economic blow to their markets from ongoing anti-smoking efforts.
“If there’s anybody that’s really going to be hurt through all this, it’s the farmers,” Sen. Roy P. Dyson, D-Calvert, told the Budget and Taxation Committee. “It’s not their fault. This has been part and parcel to our state for over 350 years and I’m proud of it.”
Dyson and Sen. Thomas McLain Middleton, D-Charles, sponsored the bill that would set aside 5 percent of Maryland’s expected $4.4 billion share from a multistate settlement with tobacco companies.
The $220 million would go to the Tri-County Council over 25 years and would help the region’s 1,200 tobacco growers switch to alternate crops if they desired. It would also be used to support farmers who continue to grow tobacco, for agricultural land preservation and for education and other programs outlined in the multi-page proposal from tobacco groups.
Farmers fear a sharp drop in prices when the state’s tobacco markets open March 23, as a result of the multibillion-dollar lawsuit by states seeking to recover smoking-related health care costs from cigarette makers.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening is also pushing to a state cigarette tax increase to discourage smoking, which farmers worry will drive demand and prices down even further for their product.
Maryland growers said no other crop is as lucrative as tobacco, which helps support agriculture throughout the region.
“We don’t grow tobacco because it’s easy, but because it’s viable,” said Earl F. Hance, chairman of the Tobacco Committee of the Maryland Farm Bureau and a Southern Maryland grower.
But Glendening administration officials have said that while the Dyson- Middleton proposal “may have merit,” it is premature to allocate funds from a settlement that the state has not even received yet.
And some Budget and Taxation Committee members wondered why farmers will need a share of the state’s settlement money, since they have reached a $31.5 million side agreement with the tobacco companies to be paid over 12 years. Money in the Dyson-Middleton bill would be in addition to any money that growers receive from tobacco companies as part of the lawsuit settlement.
But growers defended their 5 percent request.
“I don’t want any of you (committee members) to think we’re going to be saved by this side agreement,” Hance said. “It’s going to dry up.”
Tri-County Council Executive Director Dave Jenkins conceded that the growers face a tough fight from anti-smoking groups, which want a share of the settlement money for cancer research and anti-smoking campaigns.
“There are a lot of competing interests out there,” Jenkins said. “I just believe this is important for the total agricultural impact for Southern Maryland. We believe it’s a very reasonable, well-thought out proposal.”
Without it, the bill’s supporters said, tobacco families in Maryland face an uncertain future.
“The dark clouds are continuing to grow over this industry,” said Gary V. Hodge, adviser to the Southern Maryland Tobacco Board. “This would be a signal that would bring some real honor to this body.”
A companion bill has been introduced in the House by the Southern Maryland delegation and was heard by the Appropriations Committee last Thursday.