Children's advocates fear raid on funds
For child advocates, the battle has just begun to protect settlement money from the state's lawsuit against the tobacco industry.
They fought off most of the proposals they found most objectionable during the legislative session that ended Saturday. But with the state expected to face an even more serious budget shortfall next year, child advocates say they are bracing for another attempt to divert the money away from children's programs.
"I think the money is going to be threatened from now on. Next year is going to be a tighter budget than this year," said Kathleen Sebelius, the state insurance commissioner and a member of the Kansas Children's Cabinet, which advises the governor and Legislature on how to spend tobacco money.
More than 50 people met at a public forum Wednesday in Wichita to discuss how to use the money. Most of them provide health, day care or educational services for children considered to be at risk of suffering from child abuse, having problems at school or using alcohol, tobacco or drugs.
In 1997, Kansas and 45 other states settled a class action lawsuit with tobacco companies over the cost of smoking-related health problems. Kansas is to receive $1.6 billion over 25 years.
Last year, lawmakers established the Children's Trust Fund, earmarking the money for "the physical and mental health, welfare, safety and overall well-being of children."
That broad definition, however, leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Earlier this year, Gov. Bill Graves proposed using $4.5 million of next year's $30 million allotment to pay for computer technology in schools.
And Rep. David Adkins, the House budget chief, proposed to strip the Children's Cabinet of most of its duties and move the oversight to the Department of Health and Environment.
Lawmakers rejected both proposals, but they included only $500,000 for smoking prevention plans -- $2 million less than the Children's Cabinet recommended.
The amount lawmakers approved to head off smoking represents only a "token" effort, said Mary Jane Hellebust of the Kansas Smokeless Kids initiative.
"It certainly cannot cover the entire state," she said. "The thrust of the settlement was to stop the use of tobacco."
Child advocates are not resting easy with their moderate success in the 2000 Legislature. In other states, they say, tobacco settlement money is being used to build prisons and to subsidize tobacco farmers.
The Children's Cabinet has focused its recommendations on helping children before the age of 5. District Judge James Buchele of Topeka, a member of the Children's Cabinet, said early childhood programs have a proven record of heading off high-risk behavior such as alcohol and drug abuse.
But government spending is focused more on older children who already have developed those behaviors, he said.
Three Wichita lawmakers who attended the forum said they expect annual battles in the Legislature over the tobacco money.
"I think where we're headed is, the Children's Cabinet is going to be gone in a few years," said Rep. Henry Helgerson, D-Wichita.