State Urged to Hold Off Disbursing Tobacco Funds
SPRINGFIELD -- The chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee suggested Thursday that Illinois wait a year to decide how the state's $9.1 billion windfall from a nationwide tobacco-industry settlement should be distributed.
Sen. Steve Rauschenberger (R-Elgin) said Illinois would benefit by watching how other states spend the settlement money.
"States all over the country are doing experimental programs," Rauschenberger said. "In a year, year and a half, we'll have data and feedback on some of those programs and whether they work.
"We don't necessarily have to experiment with our money."
The money is Illinois' share of a nationwide settlement reached in 1998 between tobacco companies and 46 states that sought to recover what the states had spent treating tobacco-related illnesses. Illinois estimates it will receive $9.1 billion over 25 years.
So far, Illinois has received about $215 million in tobacco-settlement payments and expects about $160 million more in April.
With such a hefty pot of new cash available, lawmakers are being besieged with ideas about how to spend it. Senate President James "Pate" Philip (R-Wood Dale) has even suggested the funds could help lower state income taxes. Yet Senate Republicans are also concerned that pending lawsuits could bleed off some of the state's money.
But the idea of waiting was met with resistance Thursday. And pressure to spend the money could grow during an election year, when lawmakers will search for ways to please voters.
"While it may be fiscally comforting to have a hundred million dollars already in our special account, no lives are being saved by having a big bank balance," said Rep. John Fritchey, the Chicago Democrat who co-chaired a House panel on how to distribute the funds,
"If we wait another year, you're talking 60,000 more kids are going to start smoking," said Janet Williams, spokeswoman for Half for Tobacco Prevention, a coalition that wants 50 percent of thefunds used for tobacco control and prevention.
"The tobacco industry would like nothing more than for Illinois to wait to initiate programs across the state," she said.
Differing opinions could lead to a compromise in which part of the money is designated for use this spring and a decision about the rest is held off until later.
Dennis Culloton, spokesman for Gov. George Ryan, said the governor has made no final decision.
But Atty. Gen. Jim Ryan, who orchestrated the state's settlement efforts, prefers that lawmakers move forward now.
"There are serious public health concerns that need to be addressed," said Dan Curry, the attorney general's spokesman.