Tobacco foes, lawmakers clash on use of funds from settlement
TALLAHASSEE -- Anti-smoking groups mobilized their members Wednesday to fight a decision by legislative leaders to tap more than $100 million in anticipated tobacco settlement money to balance the state budget and cut taxes.
But House Speaker Tom Feeney and Senate President John McKay, both eager to balance a budget and minimize cuts in human services after a three-week stalemate, gave no indication they would change their minds.
The Florida chapters of the American Cancer Society and American Lung Association said the preliminary budget deal brokered by Feeney and McKay on Tuesday violates the spirit of the state's historic $13 billion tobacco settlement. The 1997 pact directs most of the money to improving child medical services and care for the elderly and a smaller amount for anti-smoking efforts.
``We absolutely oppose the use of tobacco settlement funds for tax cuts or for anything else except health-related purposes,'' said Ralph DeVitto, senior vice president of the American Cancer Society in Florida. ``This is the first major attempt to use the tobacco payments for something else.''
Under terms of the settlement between the tobacco giants and the state, the Legislature can use tobacco settlement money for any purpose. In fact, lawmakers used tobacco proceeds to balance last year's budget, but the difference this year is that tobacco money is being talked about in the same sentence as a target figure of $175 million in tax cuts also agreed to by Feeney and McKay.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Jim Horne, R-Orange Park, is considered the author of the proposal. Acting on the advice of Senate budget experts, Horne suggests the state can squeeze an additional $109 million out of the tobacco settlement by auditing the first three annual installments and by seeking a percentage of the companies' increased gross profits since 1998.
Senators defend the concept, saying that it enables the state to prevent any current Medicaid clients from being denied services next year.
``I don't see where that money is being used for tax cuts,'' said Sen. Ron Silver, D-North Miami Beach, who oversees $16.5 billion in health and human services spending in the Senate and has argued to keep budget cuts to a minimum. ``Tobacco money is only being used for the purpose for which we said it would be used.''
Feeney said he was ``not entirely'' comfortable with the use of tobacco money for non-tobacco uses, but he said it was the Senate's idea.
``Nobody wins everything in this process, but as the leader, I don't have a choice to say, `I'm just going to throw my hands up and hold everyone else hostage,' '' Feeney said.
Since 1998, when the first installment of the 30-year settlement flowed to Florida, anti-smoking groups have tried to protect the money from being siphoned off for other uses. DeVitto wrote to Feeney and McKay on Wednesday, urging them to expand the ``Truth'' anti-smoking campaign, which targets children ages 11-17, to include young adults.
``The Florida Tobacco Control program is a model program,'' DeVitto said. ``It's been reducing youth smoking. In the past two years, it has reduced youth smoking by 40 percent in middle schools. When there is so much tobacco money coming into the state, there is no reason not to use it for a more aggressive tobacco control program.''
The Senate and House have agreed to spend $39 million on youth anti-smoking efforts next year, but DeVitto said the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that the state spend a minimum of $78 million a year.
Sandra Kessler, executive director of the American Lung Association in Florida, said her membership also opposes using tobacco money to help balance a budget with tax cuts in it.
A tobacco industry spokesman said he did not know enough about the Legislature's plan to comment in detail. The spokesman, Tom Ryan of Philip Morris USA, said: ``We believe we are in compliance with the marketing restrictions and our financial obligations.''
About $760 million is available this year under the third year of the settlement.
Herald staff writer Lesley Clark contributed to this report.