The U.S. Senate's 78-15 vote Thursday to approve a tobacco buyout brings the federal government one step closer to providing desperately needed relief for Kentucky's tobacco farm families, and also helped set the stage for a new farm-based economy envisioned by Gov. Ernie Fletcher.
While there's rough sledding ahead in Congress for the controversial 10-year, $12 billion provision, the outlook for struggling Kentucky farmers looks brighter than it has for many years. Lawmakers should finish the job and approve a final buyout plan.
The Senate provision was part of a deal that also would give the U.S. Food and Drug Administration something it has long wanted - the power to regulate tobacco. That's a revolutionary change that could set a troubling precedent for other legal industries, but it was seen as the only way to salvage a buyout. The House version has a buyout worth only $9.6 billion and includes no FDA regulation.
Both versions would end a price support program that dates from the Depression era but has become a cruel joke in recent years, with the tobacco quotas having lost 60 percent of their value since 1998. This has been particularly devastating to Kentucky's economy and culture.
"The family farm is the basis of Kentucky culture, and it has been based around tobacco," said Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., who will serve on the conference committee to craft the final version of the bill that contains the buyout provision.
The measure will "allow many growers, whose average age is 62, to ... pay off their debts and enjoy their retirements," Bunning said.
Perhaps more important for Kentucky's long-term prospects, it will help clear the decks for a new farm-based economy in the Bluegrass State.
A week ago, Fletcher announced plans to help Kentucky move into "advanced agriculture," nurturing industries that can turn farm products into pharmaceuticals or other high-tech substances. "It's an area where I think we have a niche ... that's unlike any other in the world," Fletcher said.
There are aspects of the buyout that give us pause, however.
Giving the FDA authority to regulate the sale, distribution and - most notably - advertising of tobacco products could have unforeseen consequences for First Amendment guarantees, which historically have been extended to commercial speech and public scientific discussion.
And if the FDA can control a consumer product for reasons of public health policy, who's next? Also troubling are critics' claims that much of the buyout money may go to people and firms who own tobacco-growing rights but aren't growing it and don't really need the buyout. Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., called it "ludicrous ... a waste of money." The conference committee can find a way to fine-tune criteria for being included in the buyout.
Those cautions aside, however, last week's step toward a tobacco buyout promises to help Kentucky's beleaguered farm families and hasten a better, more diversified economic future for the state.
EDITORIAL PAGE HEADLINES
Tobacco plan good news for Ky.
Cemetery volunteers help out
Your new 'it' dog might await at shelter
Making life better: Kid-friendly art
War in Iraq violated law's conditions