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Wicker Suggests Paying Tuition of Those Hurt by Dropping Tobacco Value

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RALEIGH — North Carolina may try and save tobacco families by giving them what most people pay for. A plan being offered would pay the college tuitions of those hurt by tobacco's fading value.

The idea is freecommunity collegetuition in North Carolina for tobacco farmers hurt by thetobacco settlement.

Lt. Governor Dennis Wickercame up with the plan. Some farmers are giving the free tuition idea a lukewarm response.

Jackie Thompson knows his business has a bleak future. He farms tobacco.

"If something were to happen and there was no other tobacco grown, I would have to go to some other trade," said Thompson.

To ease the burden on tobacco farmers, Wicker wants farmers to go to community college for free. Annual tuition in North Carolina averages about $600 a year.

"I see this as a way that we can help farm families directly who are going to be struggling making this transition," said Wicker.

But Thompson says going back to school, even for free, is not an option at age 48 with all his financial commitments.

"Light bills, health insurance bills, car payments, truck payments and things of that nature will still be going on. So I don't see that it would help my situation very much," said Thompson.

Thompson's 22-year-old son, Jay, says he just has outdoor work in his blood. He says if the family tobacco business wilts, he will make a living clearing land for new subdivisions with the skid steer loader he just bought.

"I just don't feel like I would want to go back to school. But for some other people, it might be good," said Jay Thompson.

Those are the people Wicker hopes to help.

"I am convinced, firmly convinced, that if we give our people the opportunity to go back and get that training or be retrained for a skill or job, they will do it," explained Wicker.

Besides the question of how many people will take up Wicker's offer, there is the question of how to pay for it.

Wicker's idea is to use some of the money from the $2.3 billion tobacco foundation the legislature just established.

Wicker says his proposal would require tens of millions of dollars to upgrade equipment on campuses the displaced tobacco people would attend.

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Len Besthoff, Reporter
Gil Hollingsworth, Photographer
John Clark, Web Editor

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