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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Robert W. (Bob) Scott, February 11, 1998. Interview C-0336-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

A political maneuver to secure money for public kindergarten

Scott remembers the tobacco industry's hostile opposition to his proposal to raise taxes on cigarettes in order to raise $100 million for free public kindergarten. Scott's decision to move forward with a compromise intended simply to scuttle the tax—the tobacco industry wanted to share the tax with the soft drink industry, a move they thought Scott would never accept—reveals a degree of political pragmatism.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Robert W. (Bob) Scott, February 11, 1998. Interview C-0336-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

One of the specific things that you, in a sense, went to the people on, was the tobacco and soft drink tax. You did a sort of whirlwind helicopter tour, some kind of airplane tour, of the state. Can you talk a little bit about the responses that you recall receiving from the people in that particular experience?
As I recall, the response was, I guess, somewhat as you would expect. The response was cool among the growers of tobacco who depended upon it for a living. And this is one case where the organizations, the farm organizations, if you were working through them, you were really going to catch a lot of heat. Not long after I advocated that tax, I spoke to the state Farm Bureau convention, and you could cut the air with a knife when I walked into that building and walked down the aisle to go up to make my talk. There was hostility, almost open hostility. And yet you move into Charlotte and that area where I knew of no resistance to give a talk, there's nothing wrong with this, this is a good way to raise revenue. And I tried to convince the farm groups at that time that the thing that they had got to be concerned about was not paying a little tax on their product. They had best be concerned about the health issue. Because it was already being talked about, a little bit, in the medical profession. And I said, "That's where your problem's going to come." But they weren't willing to accept that. And they felt betrayed by me, because I had an agricultural background. Although I did not grow tobacco, we did not grow tobacco here, still, I should have known better. They really felt betrayed about that. So they had a reason to be hostile to me about that, and incidentally, one of the things I want to put in the book I want to write, after you write yours, is: Not many times that a decision is cut and dry. But this is one that was cut and dry, and it was made in the phone booth on the side of the road in eastern North Carolina. And I've often thought, I wish I could remember where that was. But I was going down to the eastern part of the state to attend some meeting, make a talk. The legislature was in session. I proposed the five-cents tax on cigarettes. Well, of course the tobacco industry was very much opposed to that. The people in opposition, the leaders of the legislature who were in opposition to this tobacco tax, shrewdly devised a scheme whereby they reduced the amount of the cigarette tax, tobacco tax, and added a soft drink tax to it. Which would give me the same amount of revenue. But their strategy was that the revenue coming from the soft drinks would kill the proposal. Number one, because that would bring the soft drink industry also into opposition to it. And secondly, my campaign manager was Jimmy Johnson, who was head of the largest Coca-Cola bottling plant in the state and in the Southeast, that was in Charlotte. And he had been my campaign manager. He was a former state senator. And that strategy very nearly worked. We lobbied the legislature, I had my people there working on it, and it went to a committee. The phone—I was making this trip down east, and the word came in on the highway patrol radio to call the office. Back then we didn't have mobile phones. So we pull over to the side of the road at a country service station, and there was a pay booth out there. And I got in. It was hot in that booth. And it was Ben Hunt, and I believe, let's see, Tom White, who was my legislative liaison in the second go-around, second legislature. Anyway, they said, "We reached a stalemate, we don't have the votes to block it." We were trying to keep it separate, keep it at five cents on tobacco, cigarettes, rather than reducing that and bringing the soft drink people into it. "And we're either going to have to accept the compromise, that is the soft drinks and the tobacco, or we're going to lose it." And I got to thinking about it. My purpose was to get a hundred million dollars, or close to it, for the purpose of starting the public school kindergartens, and I remember thinking about it for maybe half a minute, and I said, "Well, we'll take it." Because the legislative leadership thought that I would turn it down. They said, "He'll never accept that." But then I said, "Let's go for it." And so that's how that decision was made. I would've thought the archives of history ought to put up a historical marker down there, at that public booth by the side of the road, wherever it is.