Committee opens debate on uses for tobacco settlement money
ST. PAUL (AP) -- A Republican effort to strip a $250 million youth tobacco prevention fund got a hostile reception by witnesses before a House committee as debate over how to use Minnesota' s $6.1 billion tobacco settlement reopened in earnest.
" This approach has the administration' s strong opposition, " state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told the House Higher Education Finance Committee on Friday. " If this funding is gutted, we start undoing the progress we' ve already made toward creating a healthier future for Minnesota teens."
Republicans, led by Reps. Doug Stang of Cold Spring and Marty Seifert of Marshall, want to transfer the $250 million from an antismoking endowment to medical education and research at the University of Minnesota.
Gov. Jesse Ventura and Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, DFL-Erskine, have proposed shoring up the university' s Academic Health Center. But they would use $160 million in new tobacco settlement payments.
House Republicans have earmarked that money, as well as the rest of the $660 million in tobacco payments over the next two years, for tax relief.
This year' s battle over plans for the tobacco windfall is focused mainly on about $350 million that will make up the settlement' s final " one-time" payments in 2002 and 2003.
Ventura and DFLers insist that money should be banked and only the interest spent on health-related efforts. They won the argument two years ago over earlier tobacco payments.
In a news release, Ventura called GOP plans for the settlement " a classic example of short-term thinking" and " just plain bad fiscal policy." In addition to the university endowment, he and Moe have proposed a $173 million " Healthy Kids Learn" fund to improve children' s health.
Seifert, however, said he' s seeking the best uses for money that belongs to all Minnesotans.
" Being a legislator means making tough decisions, " he said, describing the endowment transfer as a choice between antismoking billboards and posters on one hand and training doctors and pharmacists on the other.
No vote was taken on the plan Friday, but it was held for consideration in the committee' s overall funding package.
After a long debate in 1999, the Legislature established $900 million in tobacco settlement endowments: about $550 million for youth tobacco prevention and public health and an additional $350 million for medical education and research.
By transferring $250 million of the principal, the Stang-Seifert plan would tap $23 million in interest over two years from the statewide antismoking part of the larger fund, leaving about $10 million, according to a House fiscal analysis. About $16 million in local public health efforts also financed by interest from the fund would be untouched.
Seifert said the transfer was proposed because federal cuts have left the Academic Health Center facing deep deficits.
The message that tobacco prevention improves the health of Minnesotans was repeated by a dozen witnesses representing police, public health groups, victims of smoking-related diseases and teen-agers who have joined Target Market, a 20, 000-member antismoking youth group formed by the state Health Department using endowment money.
Via advertising, compliance checks, youth organizing and other efforts, the department hopes to cut teen tobacco use by 30 percent by 2005.