House seeks to fund priorities left out of tobacco settlement
State Department of Health Director Fay Boozman said Tuesday that Gov. Mike Huckabee is willing to use some of the tobacco settlement dollars for Meals on Wheels, a top priority for House leaders.
House Speaker Shane Broadway, D-Bryant, has threatened to hold up the bills appropriating money from the state's share of the national tobacco lawsuit settlement, a share that is expected to average $62 million a year indefinitely.
House leaders say money is needed for prescription drugs for the elderly, home health care, school nurses and Meals on Wheels, programs left out of Initiated Act 1, the tobacco settlement spending plan that voters approved Nov. 7.
Community centers and the nonprofit Area Agencies on Aging could apply for grants that are provided for in the tobacco settlement and use that money for Meals on Wheels, Boozman said.
He said he didn't know if his suggestion would provide enough money to satisfy House members, who have been meeting with state health and budget officials this week about the appropriations bills.
"Certainly this is a major issue for the members," Boozman said. "We're very hopeful."
Broadway said Boozman hasn't approached him with his plan, but he's familiar with it. He said he doesn't know whether he'll accept the plan until he talks to Boozman.
Huckabee has said lawmakers face "disastrous political consequences" if they tinker with the spending plan that voters approved. The appropriations bills were not specifically a part of that plan, though they are needed to implement some parts of it.
Huckabee spokesman Rex Nelson said the plan is way to satisfy legislators without destroying the blueprint of the tobacco spending plan, which calls for a School of Public Health, money for research at the University of Arkansas and Arkansas State University, expansion of the state-administered Medicaid program, and smoking prevention cessation programs.
He said he's optimistic that lawmakers will accept the idea and pass all 12 tobacco settlement appropriations bills. Lawmakers have complained about the bills creating 377 new state jobs, about 100 of them part-time positions.
"Our experience has been that the more we answer questions [from House members], the more comfortable they are," Nelson said.
The money Boozman proposes for funding Meals on Wheels would go through the Tobacco Settlement Commission, said state Budget Director Mike Stormes.
The commission is set up to manage interest earned off the accounts where the settlement money is placed. He estimates that the interest will total $700,000 for fiscal 2002 and $1.3 million for fiscal 2003.
Boozman said he's talking to officials at the Department of Education and the Department of Human Services to find money in general revenue -- tax money separate from the tobacco settlement -- for the prescription drugs, home health care and school nurses.
Broadway was skeptical, wondering where the money would be found in such a tight budget year. Huckabee has said that any fat in agency budgets should to go toward giving teachers a $3,000 raise.
Sentiment Tuesday among House members on whether to change the voter-approved tobacco funds spending plan was mixed. It would take a two-thirds House vote to alter the tobacco-spending plan, but it would take a three-fourths vote in the House to approve the appropriations bills. Most of the complaints have been concerning the School of Public Health provision, which the House Rules Committee two weeks ago recommended abolishing.
Rep. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, said if she voted to change the act, she wouldn't be doing anything anti-democratic as Huckabee has suggested. She noted that the state constitution allows such changes.
Rep. Mary Beth Green, R-Van Buren, disagreed. "I am here to represent the people, not my own interests. In Crawford County the vote was 2 to 1 for this plan. I think my district has made a statement," she said.
Rep. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, predicted some changes to the act but wouldn't specify.
House Republican Leader Jim Magnus, R-Little Rock, has said he opposed the spending plan during the special session but doesn't want to attack it now that the voters have approved it. He did predict that the House would alter some of the appropriations bills prepared by the governor.