This summer, state Sen. Brent Jackson pushed a law through the legislature that made it easier for farms to win state grants to help cover the cost of obtaining natural gas or propane.
What Jackson didn’t tell his colleagues on the Senate floor was that his farm had previously filed a $925,000 grant application with the state agency that approves the grants. He says that’s because he didn’t realize it was still under consideration.
The bill sailed through the General Assembly, and the state agency that makes the decision on the grant for Jackson Farms says it could still be approved. The money would come from a $5 million economic development fund Jackson set up in 2013 legislation that created the natural gas subsidies.
Jackson now says he never intended to keep the money – and would refuse it if it were awarded. He said he had heard from other farmers who were having a hard time getting a grant and was testing the process.
“Well, you probably are not going to believe this, but I wanted to see if the program would work,” Jackson said in an interview Monday.
He now acknowledges the way he handled the legislation and his grant application have created conflict-of-interest questions that need to be answered by the Legislative Ethics Committee. He said he contacted the committee after seeing a presentation about the grant program at a recent legislative committee meeting that showed his grant application was still active.
State law prohibits lawmakers from using their positions in ways that directly benefit them or their families’ businesses.
Jackson is a Sampson County Republican with a major produce farm. He and his family grow watermelons, strawberries, pumpkins and a variety of vegetables. They also serve as a broker for other farms’ produce. The natural gas line would have been used to cure tobacco and sweet potatoes.
Now in his third term, Jackson has become a powerful lawmaker and a leading voice for farm issues. He’s a chief budget writer and a vice-chairman of the Senate’s committee on agriculture, the environment and natural resources.
Jane Pinsky, director of the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying & Government Reform, said Jackson should have disclosed his grant application to lawmakers last summer as he pursued his legislation, regardless of his reasons for seeking the grant or his belief that it wasn’t successful.
“If that’s true,” Pinsky said of Jackson’s explanation for seeking the grant, “the senator did not think through what he was doing, because the perception is that he was taking care of himself before he was helping other farmers.”
At the least, Jackson tied up commerce staff on an application for a grant that he had no intention of using, Pinsky said.
Like a lot of legislation that becomes law in North Carolina, the $5 million ‘Ag/Gas’ grant program didn’t originate as a bill filed in either chamber. Jackson had substituted it in 2013 for an unrelated bill that he had already moved through the state Senate, but still needed to go through the House.
Jackson’s substitute bill provided grants to farms to help pay for extending natural gas lines to their farms, or to put in larger propane tanks. The subsidy would make it cheaper to heat poultry houses, cure tobacco or, in the case of one subsequent applicant, turn hog waste into renewable energy.
It would also help neighboring farms and businesses that could tap into the extended line much more cheaply.
“The natural gas part of it will benefit the whole community,” Jackson said.
The new legislation drew little debate as it cleared the House. It had to go back to the Senate for its agreement, but even though it was an entirely different bill, it no longer needed committee hearings there.
Jackson told his colleagues the money was coming from existing commerce funds, so there was no additional cost. No one voted against it.
‘We’d heard nothing’
Nearly two years later, on Jan. 12, 2015, Jackson Farms applied for a grant to help pay for a natural gas line extension estimated to cost $1.7 million. As commerce officials handled that grant, he said he learned independently of his application that they had misinterpreted the law to mean only farms that were new or expanding were eligible.
That led Jackson to change the law’s language in the summer 2016 session to clarify that all farms were eligible to apply. He didn’t inform lawmakers that he had applied for a grant.
“I thought the application was dead,” he said. “We’d heard nothing in months.”
Jackson told the full Senate when the bill came up for a vote that the changes to the Ag/Gas grant program were just “clarifying” language.
“This is only a clarifying change that the Department of Commerce asked for so that they could actually implement this program as the language was originally intended in 2013,” he told his colleagues.
The legislation passed by wide margins with no debate about the Ag/Gas provision.
The Commerce Department has awarded grants to six other agribusinesses, including the renewable energy project. Mark Poole, the manager of the program, said in a short interview last week that “a couple” others have been rejected.
He said Jackson Farms’ application was still alive but “incomplete.”
“We are continuing to seek information from the applicant that would allow us to make an important decision as to whether it conforms with the statute,” Poole said.
While Poole said he knew that Jackson Farms is Jackson’s business, Poole said all of his discussions regarding Jackson Farm’s application were with the farm manager.
Poole said he couldn’t say whether Jackson Farms was seeking money for an expansion project, but Jackson said the application didn’t claim the gas line would lead to an expansion. The News & Observer has requested to review the grant program’s files. Kim Genardo, a Commerce Department spokesperson, said the records could not be made available until just before the end of the year.
Last month, Poole gave lawmakers a short report on the Ag/Gas program. His presentation listed the six recipients of the grants – who had been awarded a combined $2.9 million – plus Jackson Farms’ application. Its status was shown as “TBD,” or to be determined.
At the meeting, Jackson questioned the $1.5 million for the renewable energy project. He now agrees it’s an acceptable project.
Jackson didn’t talk about his grant application after the presentation in a legislative meeting. He said he was surprised to see it in the presentation and it left him embarrassed.