The head of a national group of African American farmers today criticized Gov. James S. Gilmore III for not appointing a black member to a panel that will decide how to spend $339 million in aid to Virginia tobacco farmers.
The Virginia Tobacco Trust Certification Board, which met for the first time today, consists of Gilmore and 13 public officials and farmers, all of whom, like the governor, are white men. Seven of the members were appointed by the governor, while others are on the panel as a result of offices they hold.
Their task is to decide how to divide money that tobacco companies have agreed to pay Virginia farmers in a side agreement to the national tobacco settlement last year. The side agreement, which totals $5.15 billion to tobacco-growing states nationwide, is in addition to the $206 billion national tobacco settlement.
John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, said the new board does not adequately represent Virginia's 500 black tobacco farmers.
"That's the history here: When the money's on the table, there's no black representation," Boyd said. Gilmore "is always preaching about being inclusive. And what was there today was not inclusive."
The governor disputed that allegation, saying that he represents all Virginians, black and white. There are several thousand tobacco farmers in Virginia.
"They will be well represented by the governor," said Gilmore spokesman Mark Miner. "No one will be left behind."
Miner also noted that Gilmore has recently appointed Boyd and a second African American to the board that will be dividing an even larger pot of money--the main part of the tobacco settlement. Virginia officials expect $4 billion from the national settlement. Half of that will go to aid farmers and revitalize farming communities, as directed by the board that Boyd will sit on.
Tobacco is Virginia's top cash crop, bringing in between $160 million and $190 million a year, Gilmore said. Trouble in the industry and the national tobacco settlement have caused deep unease in Southside and Southwest Virginia communities that rely on the crop.
The board that met for the first time today will direct the $339 million expected over the next 12 years to farmers and to others who hold "quotas" to grow the crop. Many of the latter group are retired farmers, who lease their right to grow tobacco to active farmers.
"Many Virginians depend on tobacco to make their living and always have, even sometimes over generations, to provide for their families or pay for their children's education and for their retirement," Gilmore said as he opened the group's first meeting.
Attorney General Mark L. Earley, who helped negotiate the side agreement and sits on the board for dividing the money, added, "The side agreement and the work that will come from this board now will certainly do much to lift the cloud of uncertainty which for too long has hung over the heads of many hard-working Virginians who are tobacco farmers and quota holders."