Thursday, August 26, 2004

Tobacco buyout forum's focus

By Bruce Schreiner
The Associated Press

LOUISVILLE - U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning told farm leaders Wednesday he has played an important role in pushing for a tobacco buyout that is closer than ever to being passed by Congress.

His challenger, Democrat Daniel Mongiardo, said a buyout would have been passed years ago except for "failed leadership." Farmers yearning for a buyout of production quotas have been taken on "a roller coaster ride," he said.

The rivals made separate appearances at a candidate forum before leaders of the influential Kentucky Farm Bureau. For Mongiardo, it was a rare opportunity to appear on the same stage as an incumbent, though the two were never in the room together. Bunning, a Republican running for a second term, spoke first, then left the building.

A Farm Bureau official said Bunning preferred separate appearances. Mongiardo has been clamoring for public debates.

"For someone not to be willing to stand up in front of you and be compared to his opponent, I think tells a lot," Mongiardo said.

Bunning declined to say whether he would debate Mongiardo, a state senator and physician from Hazard. "That's a political question, and I will not answer it here," Bunning said.

Bunning said his tenure in Congress is an advantage in dealing with domestic and security issues. "During tough times like these, I strongly believe experience matters and character counts," he said.

Mongiardo, however, said the country is headed in the wrong direction, which requires new leadership with fresh ideas.

The candidates spoke on issues ranging from trade to taxes to health care. Foremost was the proposed tobacco buyout, under which farmers would be paid to give up a Depression-era federal system that sets price and production controls.

Bunning noted that he is on the House-Senate conference committee handling the buyout legislation.

"I can't promise you that we'll get a buyout, but I can promise you I will do everything I can to get you something," he said.

The Senate and House have passed different versions of a buyout as part of a corporate tax bill. The conference committee will try to work out the differences.

But he said the legislation would have to include regulation of tobacco by the Food and Drug Administration. "We're going to have to suck it up and take FDA" to get a buyout through the Senate, Bunning said.

Mongiardo said a proposed buyout was first presented in the late 1990s and should have been passed years ago.

"We hear about this at election time," he said. "Why is it we hear about it in August, September and October of every year?"

Bunning said he has been a Farm Bureau ally on many issues. "I have been your friend, and I will continue to be your friend," he said.

On health care, Bunning endorsed a provision for expanded "health savings accounts."

Mongiardo supported allowing individuals and small business owners to buy into the health insurance program for federal employees.

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