Tobacco buyout takes center stage

The buyout is a front-burner issue for tobacco-state legislators, but there are differences in the numbers being talked about in each house of Congress.

Speaking at the 57th annual meeting of the Flue-Cured Tobacco Cooperative Stabilization Corp., U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole and U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge told growers and other industry representatives that a window could open to pass a buyout in the coming weeks. They urged growers to be patient.

Etheridge, D-N.C., the only tobacco farmer in Congress, has introduced a bill with U.S. Rep. Ernie Fletcher, R-Ky., that calls for a buyout of $8 a pound for quota owners and $4 a pound for producers based on the 1998 quota. There's also an additional $2 a pound for growers who want to stop growing tobacco. Stabilization supports those numbers.

Dole, R-N.C., who's working with U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell as well as other tobacco-state senators, says their bill uses the 2002 quota as the base year for the buyout. She said the proposal is in the “final stages.”

The difference in the 1998 and 2002 numbers could mean about 33 percent less money in a buyout. The 1998 quota was more than 800 million pounds; the 2002 quota, 575 million pounds, the result of numerous quota cuts.

In her talk to Stabilization, Dole pointed out the parameters that the Senate leadership has provided to move the process forward. “Tobacco state members in the Senate have been warned that a proposal that uses 1998 quota as its base year simply costs too much and the majority of members in the Senate are not going to go along.

“It (a tobacco buyout) must be viewed as reasonable for it to pass,” Dole says. “Funding without taxpayers gets us to bat, but doesn't hit a home run.”

Etheridge, who arrived after Dole's speech, said the reasoning behind using the 1998 quota for the buyout was, “if you start here, that becomes the ceiling, and you go down from there. I've never seen one grow. If we agree to settle for less, we would get nothing.”

Etheridge said support of health groups, as well as legislators outside the tobacco belt, will be critical for passage of a tobacco buyout.

While growers support a proposal that pays quota owners and growers for the value of quota, there are still questions about what kinds of controls would be in place in a post-buyout era.

“A safety net is critical,” Dole says. “Tobacco should not be treated different than any other commodity.”

“It comes down to one thing,” says Bruce Flye, Stabilization's president. “We support getting the money.”

Congress is set to adjourn Oct. 3. “You see the challenge we face,” Etheridge says. “We're getting closer and closer to the edge and we don't want to fall into the abyss before we get the job done.”

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