missing its mission
(This editorial originally appeared in the Wilson Daily Times.)
When then-N.C. Attorney General Mike Easley was touting the windfall from the nationwide Master Settlement Agreement with tobacco companies, he trilled at the many ways the settlement money would help tobacco-dependent communities shift into the future. That was in 1999.
The reality has not been exactly as Easley envisioned it.
Half of the settlement money has gone to the Golden LEAF Foundation, but its disbursement has been driven by politics and economic enticements rather than by a commitment to the recovery of tobacco-dependent communities. Wilson County, which had the largest tobacco market in the state, has received just 0.6 percent of the $201 million Golden LEAF has disbursed.
A Daily Times analysis published December 16 found that a major factor in the success of a county’s request for LEAF funding depends on whether a resident of that county sits on the Golden LEAF board. Nash County, which has kept a resident on the board, has received more than double the funding Wilson County got. Pitt County, which also has a resident on the LEAF board, has received nearly five times the funding of Wilson County.
The Golden LEAF board considers 82 of the state’s 100 counties to be ‘‘priority’’ counties, but only a few of those counties were substantially dependent upon tobacco. Wake County is a priority, as are Guilford, Buncombe and Carteret, where little tobacco has been grown and where other industries predominate. Even non-priority counties, such as Orange ($6.6 million in grants), get LEAF funding.
It should come as no surprise that politics influences Golden LEAF grants. The 15-member board is appointed by the three top political powers in the state — the governor, the speaker of the House and the president pro-tem of the Senate. None of the appointees have to have any expertise in economics, agriculture or redevelopment. They merely have to have a friend in high places.
The same might be said about other state boards and commissions, but the Golden LEAF board is dealing with a potential $2.5 billion in settlement money over 20 years. Few other appointed boards have the authority to disburse that much money.
Six years into the settlement payoff, it’s time for the General Assembly to re-examine the system created so gleefully in 2000. Golden LEAF funds should benefit truly tobacco-dependent communities and not be just another politicized state endowment. Fixing this system might require changing board membership.