Senator Douglas Berger Message

Attack on Rural North Carolina

The budget recently passed by the House includes deep cuts to many departments and services, but the bill also completely abolishes both the Health & Wellness Trust Fund (HWTF) and the Tobacco Trust Fund, and intercepts Golden LEAF’s funding for at least the next two years and possibly longer. The plundering of these much-needed programs represents an assault on rural community development and public health in our state.

These three funds were created by the General Assembly in the late 1990s to administer settlement money from a 1998 suit brought by North Carolina and 45 other states against tobacco companies, which pay each state annually. Under current law, North Carolina’s share of the money is split among three different funds. Half of the money goes to Golden LEAF, which provides grants to assist in community and economic development in rural areas. One quarter of the proceeds go to the Health and Wellness Trust Fund, which funds youth anti-smoking education and health services for the poor. Another 25 percent goes to the Tobacco Trust Fund, which was created to help create alternative economic opportunities for communities and farmers formerly dependent on the tobacco industry.

The raiding of these important trust funds will be devastating to our state, particularly in rural communities. Where other programs are being cut by 10 or 20 percent, the HWTF and the Tobacco Trust Fund are being eliminated entirely in order to allow the state to raid their coffers. This is a shortsighted move that would mean the loss of important services and the jobs of the people providing them.

The loss of the Health & Wellness Trust Fund alone would impact many programs in our area. In Warren County, the medication assistance program for low income and uninsured people would lose its funding of $70,000. Volunteers in Medicine program in Franklin County would feel a devastating cut of $95,000. Vance County Schools would see the loss of funding for its Tobacco Reality Unfiltered (TRU) anti-smoking education program, which receives $297,000.

Research has shown that programs like TRU works. According to Dr. Laura Gerald, executive director of the NC Health & Wellness Trust Fund, the rate of youth smoking in North Carolina has been cut in half since the programs were created in 2001. Other states that have eliminated programs like ours saw an increase in the number of young people smoking after the funding was cut off.

In addition to the local programs that receive funds from the Health & Wellness Trust Fund, the TRU program has created a series of public service announcements that air statewide. One of these features the story of Justin Andrews, a Granville County resident who developed lung cancer at age 28 after 14 years of smoking. His wife wrote me recently to express her concern about the effect the loss of this valuable program would have on public health in our state. Mr. Andrews passed away from his illness recently, but at the request of his family, the psa’s continue to be shown on TV in his memory because they believe the anti-smoking message is so important for their fellow North Carolinians to hear. If you haven’t seen the ad on TV already, it can be found online here.

“Justin will roll over in his grave as he realizes what is taking place,” Gerald said. “To cut (these programs) this year is such a slap in the face.”

What is particularly outrageous, Gerald continued, is that programs receiving grants from the HWTF will have the rug cut out from under them suddenly. The prediction is that more than 500 jobs statewide will be affected.

“There will be a loss of jobs in Raleigh (where the WHTF is located), but this will echo across the state,” she said.

Dismantling the Tobacco Trust Fund would hurt rural communities and family farmers trying to move beyond North Carolina’s historic dependence on tobacco production. Grants from this fund help farmers transition from growing tobacco to other profitable uses of their land, allowing them to preserve jobs and keep their farms in the family. One such farmer is Frank Hester of Henderson, who was able to use one of these grants to switch from growing tobacco to growing produce. By adding the grant money to his own funds, he was able to start growing cabbage and build new facilities, which has allowed him to give more hours to his existing employees and hire new ones.

Martha Mobley of Franklin County Cooperative Extension also gave the example of the Holmes family of Ingleside which used grant funds to help turn an old tobacco barn into a camping facility for visitors who come to the farm for horseback riding. Such community and economic development work is an important compliment to the public health efforts being undertaken by the Health & Wellness Trust Fund. As the public health efforts succeed at getting people to quit smoking and give up tobacco, we also need to provide support to help the farmers and communities adapt by moving on to different crops and industries. That’s what the Tobacco Trust Fund and Golden LEAF were designed to do, and the grants they provide in rural communities pay dividends in the form of job creation both on and off the farm.

These three funds were created to use North Carolina’s portion of the tobacco settlement for the betterment of rural economies and the betterment of public health statewide. These are worthy goals and fitting uses of the money the state receives from the settlement with the tobacco industry. Because of the state’s history as a leading producer of tobacco, it makes sense that the money should be used to rectify some of the public health problems these products have caused, and help develop alternative economic opportunities for the communities that used to produce them. Eliminating these programs and putting the settlement money in the general fund, as the House budget has proposed, undermines those goals and moves North Carolina in the wrong direction.

Town Hall Meeting

Sen. Doug Berger and Rep. Michael Wray will sponsor a town hall meeting on the House budget and its effect on the district. The budget has passed the House and will go to the Senate next week.

The forum will be held 7-9 p.m. on Thursday, May 12, in the old courthouse in Henderson, 122 Young St.

The program will consist of four speakers talking for approximately 15 minutes each followed by a question-and-answer period from the audience.

Speakers will be:

  • · Carolyn Paylor, executive director of Franklin-Granville-Vance Partnership for Children (Smart Start).
  • · Dr. Timothy Farley, superintendent of Granville County Schools (public schools).
  • · Cindy Bostic, assistant district attorney, Oxford (criminal justice system).
  • · Valerie Hennicke, director of Five County Mental Health Authority (mental health system).