ANNAPOLIS – More than half of Maryland’s tobacco farmers have signed contracts not to produce tobacco next year as part of the state’s buy-out program.
By Tuesday, 452 farmers representing 4.5 million pounds of tobacco took the buy out. Gov. Parris N. Glendening initiated the buy-out program in 1999 as part of an effort to eliminate smoking in the state. He is expected to announce the numbers on Monday in St. Mary’s County.
However, some farmers and legislators are worried the farmers won’t get the money.
Farmers who accept the buy out receive $1 per pound of tobacco typically grown on their land every year for 10 years. By the Feb. 22 deadline, 695 farmers applied for contracts for next year’s program. If all sign them, the state would owe them $6.75 million next year.
Funding for the program, however, is provided only year by year, which is what worries farmers and Southern Maryland legislators.
“There’s a certain number of farmers, especially the younger ones, who are skeptical of the buy out,” said Delegate Van T. Mitchell, D-Charles.
In response to these concerns, Glendening has proposed a bill offering farmers the option of taking an up-front payment of $7.74 per pound. The money would come from a bond backed by part of the $4.4 billion dollar settlement the state won from the tobacco companies in 1998.
Some legislators oppose that option because it will take money away from other health programs funded by the settlement.
“Just because the farmers don’t believe us is not a good enough reason to do it this way,” said Sen. Barbara Hoffman, D-Baltimore. She was “ethically” opposed to taking money away from programs such as cancer research to fund the farmers.
The buy-out program consumes 5 percent of the settlement money.
The governor’s bill was heard Wednesday in the House Appropriations Committee.
“There are several delegates on the House Appropriations Committee . . . who point-blank don’t want to see the buy out,” said Delegate Van T. Mitchell, D-Charles. “They don’t want to see our farmers get the money.”
Treasurer Richard Dixon also opposed the bond during the hearing, though he does support reducing the tobacco grown in Maryland. Dixon and Glendening are two of the three votes on the state’s Board of Public Works, which controls all state spending. The third vote is Comptroller William Donald Schaefer.
“I’m opposed to doing it by this method,” Dixon said. “This is the wrong way to do it.”
The funding crunch for the buy out is partly due to a disagreement between the state and lawyer Peter Angelos on how to split the money. Angelos negotiated for Maryland in the tobacco settlement.
Because of the conflict, the state must keep 25 percent of the settlement money in escrow.
Tobacco farmers who testified before the committee said they supported the bill, but didn’t take sides on how to fund it. They want money appropriated for the other programs accompanying the buyout, such as grants for alternative crop research and agricultural land preservation, and the guarantee that they will be paid.
The land is at risk of development without that crop conversion funding, said Christine Bergmark, director of the Tri-County Council, which administers the buy out.
“If we just have the buy out,” she said, “we run the risk of losing agriculture in Southern Maryland.”