State might invest in tobacco
In 1997, Florida leaders stopped investing state money in tobacco companies, worried that their own lawsuits against cigarette makers could come back to burn them.
Today, lured by those companies' resurgent strength, officials are set to pick up the habit again.
The state Board of Administration - Gov. Jeb Bush, Comptroller Bob Milligan and Treasurer Tom Gallagher - is scheduled this morning to vote on eliminating the tobacco restriction, opening the state's $100 billion employee pension fund to a wider, and possibly more lucrative, investment future.
They say the state could be losing millions in potential value as tobacco stocks outperform most others on the market.
But the board is still conflicted over whether to also remove the tobacco restriction from the Lawton Chiles Endowment, a $1.3 billion fund named after the governor who led the charge against Big Tobacco in 1997 and won a $13 billion settlement.
Analysts say keeping the endowment in a tobacco-free zone could cost more than $40,000 a year in extra charges. But investing the cash pool in tobacco creates a philosophical morass - the same companies that are paying the settlement that created the endowment could benefit from the investment dollars.
"I'm still wrestling with it, to tell you the truth," said Milligan, who voted against dumping $825 million in tobacco stocks four years ago.
Bush didn't issue an opinion Monday but was clearly against opening the endowment to tobacco two weeks ago.
"From a balanced perspective," he said, "I just can't see how we can be investing in tobacco stocks here."
Switch costly but may be valuable
Four years ago, Chiles and then-Treasurer Bill Nelson voted to sell the state's tobacco stocks. They were worried that the state's lawsuits to recover the cost of treating people with tobacco-related illnesses would cause stocks to drop and hurt the pension fund, which covers more than 750,000 current and former state employees.
That required the state's money managers to create special stock indexes devoid of tobacco companies. Since Florida is one of the few states still abstaining from tobacco investment, the indexes cost more to manage.
Tom Herndon, executive director for the Board of Administration, told board members in a memo last week that it would cost about $5 million to switch to a stock index with tobacco stocks but that the returns, which averaged around 8 percent over the last three to five years, would likely improve.
As tobacco companies recovered from the flood of litigation and diversified into other industries, their stock prices have jumped. Industry giant Philip Morris USA, which owns Kraft Foods and Miller Brewing Company, has seen its stock price almost double in the last year. As for the Chiles endowment, Herndon said leaving it in the special indexes would only drive up the cost more. It also could require state officials to create their own indexes if the money managers junk them because of low profits.
A handful of anti-smoking groups oppose the measure, saying that while the tobacco industry's financial picture has brightened, the health concerns with its products have not.
"It doesn't make any sense to me why the state would be interested in investing in a product that kills so many people," said Brenda Olsen, assistant executive director of the American Lung Association of Florida, adding that smoking kills about 29,000 Floridians a year.