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Your tobacco settlement funds at work

December 7th, 2010 by Isabela Mayer

cigarettes taxesYour tobacco settlement funds at work. Who knew that thermal-pane windows and museum exhibits helped out tobacco farmers? Apparently they do, since they’ve been bankrolled by a fund that’s supposed to help rural, tobacco-dependent communities in south and southwest Virginia.

Even though the Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Program has distributed nearly $1 billion over the past decade, it has attracted fairly little notice. Its 24 members gather regularly to review a flood of grant requests and decide who gets the dough.

But I’m starting to wonder if some of that dough has gone a little sour. Maybe others are too, after former finance secretary John Forbes drew attention to the commission when he was sentenced for embezzling $4 million from the fund.

The pot of money is Virginia’s share of a massive, $206 billion settlement paid by the nation’s four largest tobacco companies. State law says it can be distributed for two purposes in addition to smoking-related Medicaid costs and programs to prevent smoking: (1) to help compensate tobacco farmers for their losses and (2) to revitalize tobacco-dependent communities.

That’s why it’s a bit strange that a civil rights museum in Farmville has received more than $630,000 for more efficient window panes and to build exhibits. And of the two state lawmakers originally credited by the museum with helping to procure the grant, one denied involvement, while the other declined to comment.

Despite what a museum press release stated at the time, State Sen. Frank Ruff told me he was not involved in getting the grant, but he was still willing to defend it. He cited tourism as the connection between the grants and the commission’s intention. By improving the museum, the grants were helping to promote tourism, and thus contributing to Farmville’s economic health.

The sad part is, the economically depressed region undoubtedly has many needs that trump infusing money into museum improvements. In a recent year, the commission was able to approve only half of the grant requests it received. It’s a lost opportunity for rural Virginians and members of the commission.

House Minority Leader Ward Armstrong (D-Henry) has been something of a whistleblower for the commission. As he told The Post, “the most dangerous thing in the world is unprotected wealth.”

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