California clears last legal hurdle for tobacco cash
California has swept away the last remaining legal hurdle standing between the state and its $25 billion payout from the national tobacco settlement, the state's attorney general said on Wednesday.
Attorney General Bill Lockyer said the state qualified for its share of the tobacco money after a smoker's rights group decided not to pursue an August California Appeals Court decision rejecting their lawsuit.
``The legal barriers to California being part of the national tobacco settlement were resolved this week,'' Lockyer told reporters in a telephone news conference. ``The clock has run, the appeals are over and now we can go forward.''
California's is now set to receive an estimated $1 billion a year as part of the the 25-year settlement reached last November between the tobacco industry and 46 states.
Under the agreement, no state can receive tobacco money until June 2000 unless strict rules are met. One such rule, known as ``state specific finality,'' can only occur when all outstanding appeals are settled.
States can get their money early if 80 percent of the states receiving 80 percent of the settlement allocation have reached that final stage. Although 80 percent of the settling states now have finality, they do not make up 80 percent of the allocation. As a result at least one more state is needed to reach ``finality'' before the money can be released early.
Scott Williams, a tobacco industry spokesman, said company lawyers have not yet come to a decision on the issue of finality in California.
But officials from California's attorney general's office said they have been in contact with lawyers from the tobacco companies and expected approval soon.
``It is my understanding their local counsel is advising them based upon California law that that (state-specific finality) has taken place,'' said Dennis Eckhart, an assistant attorney general. ``We expect that they will sign an agreement to that effect within the next few days.''
A lawsuit brought by a coalition of American Indians earlier this summer in California and the massive civil lawsuit filed Wednesday by the U.S. Justice Department will also not effect finality because both groups are considered separate entities, he added.