Senate believes voters should reconsider use of tobacco money
HELENA â€” The severity of Montana's budget deficit is reason enough to ask voters to reconsider how they want to spend millions of dollars the state gets each year in a tobacco settlement, the Senate decided Thursday.
By a 27-23 margin, senators endorsed a bill that would put the question back before voters. Just four months ago, voters approved an initiative dedicating $14 million to programs aimed at preventing tobacco use.
The ballot measure in Senate Bill 451, which would be placed on the 2004 ticket, suggests using the money for programs serving the mentally ill.
Sen. John Esp. R-Big Timber, said his proposal is not a sign of disrespect for the wishes of voters. Rather, he said, they should have the chance to consider spending the money differently based on where lawmakers have found a greater need among those for whom treatment may be a matter of life and death.
"What I'm asking you to do is to ask the voters to do something else," he said. "If we don't figure out another way to do this, people are not going to be here," said Esp, his voice breaking. "Families are going to go through mourning â€¦ and I don't think they should have to."
Sen. John Bohlinger, R-Billings, said he believes voters would have wanted to use some of the tobacco settlement payment for this purpose had they realized last November that such programs would have to go without money.
Senate President Bob Keenan, R-Bigfork, suggested Initiative 146 â€” passed with 65 percent of the vote â€” may be unconstitutional anyway. The constitution prohibits ballot measures from being used to appropriate money, he said.
Critics said lawmakers should not be questioning the wisdom of Montana voters in passing the initiative.
"There's no way I can go against the will of the people and how they voted," said Sen. Bea McCarthy, D-Anaconda. "They sent us a clear message on that."
Sen. Emily Stonington, D-Bozeman, said the proposed change in the law isn't needed. Advocates for tobacco-prevention efforts may be willing to support diverting the money for two years, she said.