Governor wants to redirect state tobacco funds
Barbour proposes other uses for $20M in Partnership money
Gov. Haley Barbour wants to use money usually earmarked for an anti-smoking group that has been bankrolled by tobacco lawsuit winnings and route the money to areas more indirectly related to smoking cessation.
At a news conference Thursday, Barbour stopped short of saying he wants to dissolve The Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi. But his "Healthy Kids" initiative proposed taking the Partnership's annual $20 million from the tobacco settlement and farm it out to four areas:
$5 million to expand the school nurse program to all school districts.
$5 million for an anti-smoking education and ad campaign.
$5 million to expand cancer research, treatment and screening.
$5 million to the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics to fight drugs.
The governor's "Healthy Kids" initiative is the latest development in his effort to wrest the Partnership's annual allotment from a 1997 tobacco lawsuit.
The Partnership defended its programs while blasting Barbour's proposal in a statement on Thursday.
Implementing Barbour's proposal, the Partnership says, "would decimate tobacco prevention in Mississippi" by removing what it considers a highly effective model endorsed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"By proposing to promote only two parts of a multi-faceted tobacco prevention program, the governor is denying Mississippi's kids the full realm of educational and healthcare programs they deserve," said Sandra Shelson, executive director of the Partnership.
Barbour has criticized the group for a lack of accountability.
He went to court to stop the money from directly going to the Partnership, and in December, Jackson County Chancery Judge Jaye Bradley ruled that the suit can proceed. She also put this year's $20 million on hold, which means the money cannot be spent until the dispute is resolved.
"There has never been an accounting of how the Partnership has spent this $100 million given to the Legislature, the governor, the Health Care Trust Fund Board, or the taxpayers," Barbour said. "While it is claimed that the Partnership is audited, no certified audit of the Partnership's use of the state's money has ever been provided."
Bills are pending in the Legislature to put the Partnership under the legislative appropriation process to address what critics have called a lack of accountability for taxpayer funds.
House Bill 1115 would authorize lawmakers to direct $20 million a year to the private, nonprofit group founded by former Attorney General Mike Moore, who filed and won the first state lawsuit in the country against the tobacco industry to recover state-related expenses in treating sick smokers.
The House bill cleared a hurdle in the Senate on Thursday, passing the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Barbour, a former tobacco lobbyist, said Thursday he would veto the bill if it passed the Legislature.
Moore chairs the group's board and asked lawmakers for the legislation.
Moore called Barbour's announcement today a political trick aimed at trying to change the debate.
The only issue in the lawsuit, Moore says, and the issue that House Bill 1119 aims to fix, is whether the Legislature or the courts will have oversight over the Partnership's funding.
"He's using a last-minute trick to try to change the debate," Moore said. "It's too little too late and the Legislature will see right through it."