Anti-smoking efforts take hit
Wisconsin's anti-smoking campaign took a $12 million hit Wednesday as key lawmakers continued the daunting task of reducing state spending by $761 million.
The Legislature's Joint Finance Committee reduced funding for the Wisconsin Tobacco Control Board from $33.2 million down to $21.2 million over two years.
Anti-smoking advocates said the cut would undermine the board's ability to reduce smoking and related health-care costs and deaths in Wisconsin.
"This is devastating," said Dr. Earnestine Willis, an associate professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin who chairs the Tobacco Control Board.
But key lawmakers on the Joint Finance Committee said the state's difficult financial situation made the $12 million reduction necessary.
"We tried to find a middle ground where we can have a good tobacco prevention program and still save some money," said committee co-chairman Rep. John Gard, R-Peshtigo. Democratic committee members tried to maintain Republican Gov. Scott McCallum's recommendation of $33.2 million, but they lost on a 8-8 vote along party lines. Several Democrats then joined the Republicans to approve the $21.2 million figure by a 13-3 vote.
If the two sides had remained deadlocked on the issue, funding for the Tobacco Control Board could have dropped to zero.
"I think this is a mistake," said Sen. Brian Burke, D-Milwaukee, the other co-chairman of the committee. He voted against the lower amount. "Without more prevention we'll have another generation of young people addicted to tobacco."
The Tobacco Control Board will likely have to reduce the number of anti-smoking television advertisements it airs across the state, said executive director David Gundersen. The board also may have to reduce grants to community groups that push for smoke-free environments and operate cessation programs.
Gundersen and others haven't given up hope, however, that funding may be restored to $33.2 million by the time McCallum signs the state budget into law later this year. The Senate and Assembly can tinker with the budget before leaders of both houses negotiate a compromise that's sent to the governor.
"There's a bipartisan group of legislators who believe in this, and the public wants this," said Carrie Sullivan, executive director of SmokeFree Wisconsin, a coalition including major health organizations.
On the bright side, Sullivan noted, the Joint Finance Committee committed itself to giving the Tobacco Control Board $15 million a year after July 1, 2003.
The state budget proposal that lawmakers are revising covers spending from July 1, 2001, to June 30, 2003. Slowing tax collections and higher state expenses for medical, school and child-care programs have created a $761 million budget hole that, by law, has to be filled before the budget is signed. The committee trimmed that figure to about $741 million on Wednesday with the Tobacco Control Board taking the largest hit.
The Legislature created the board two years ago after Wisconsin and other states won a legal settlement against large tobacco companies. The states sued over health costs for treating sick smokers, and Wisconsin has been collecting about $150 million a year ever since.
State leaders have been using most of the settlement money to cover general state expenses. Gov. McCallum also has a plan to sell off the money stream from the settlement for a lump sum of $1.3 billion, some of which would be used to create a health foundation.
Sullivan and other anti-smoking advocates think Wisconsin leaders are missing the original point of the lawsuit.
"The purpose of these dollars coming to the state is not to balance the budget," she said, "they were won in part because people died and people were sick and the state paid for treating them because of smoking."
Sens. Judy Robson, D-Beloit, a registered nurse, and Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, pledged to fight for more money for the board. But Jauch conceded it's "very unlikely" that the $12 million cut will be restored.