Tobacco money not prioritized for kids
TOPEKA -- The group appointed to oversee the way Kansas spends its $1.6 billion settlement from tobacco companies is in danger of becoming irrelevant, critics say.
The Legislature created the 15-member Children's Cabinet a year ago, asking its members to determine the best way to spend the tobacco money so that children would benefit.
But in the year since its creation, the cabinet has yet to develop priorities and was not a force during the 2000 legislative session, said the House's chief budget official, Rep. David Adkins, R-Leawood.
"The time to sharpen pencils and organize things is over," Adkins said. "They (members of the cabinet) have to become fully engaged very quickly in developing a strategy."
Children's advocates worry that the tobacco money will be used to patch the state's budget holes, as was done this session.
Cabinet members concede they need to focus but said they have been given a difficult task that started in a bad budget year.
Cabinet member Marvin Barkis and those who watch the cabinet, agree that the panel was unable to set the agenda for tobacco funds this session because by the time it was appointed last June, Gov. Bill Graves' budget process was already in full swing.
In addition, because of short revenues it became apparent early on that Graves wanted to use tobacco money, in some areas, to replace short state revenues.
Those who monitor the cabinet also say its direction from the Legislature has been unclear. Should the cabinet be recommending programs to fund or evaluating and determining what programs are working, or both?
Added to this is the fact that the cabinet has been pressured by numerous groups for funding.
"There are a lot of things we could spend that money on," Barkis said. "We have to design recommendations that they (the Legislature) will listen to and have some weight."
Another problem erupted when the cabinet hired an executive director in March. This caused some grumbling among lawmakers.
"It concerned us that they were taking on what could evolve into the trappings of another state agency," Adkins said.
"My fear was that the cabinet would become another fiefdom. We have too many fiefdoms and too little coordination," he said.
For the fiscal year that starts July 1, the Legislature appropriated zero funds for administration of the cabinet.
The new executive director, Joyce Cussimanio, however, said administrative expenses will be paid out of a federal grant.
Despite these problems, Barkis, a former House speaker, said the cabinet is dedicated to trying to make an impact on children's lives.
"The Children's Cabinet needs to be thinking about systemwide impact. These are special dollars and should be kept out of the mainstream like they were treated this year," Barkis said.
While the cabinet has yet to drive an agenda, it has a lot of political muscle -- aside from Barkis, members include Insurance Commissioner Kathleen Sebelius, Attorney General Carla Stovall and Cessna executive John Moore, who is the chairman.
Barkis said the cabinet wants to fashion a plan that gets respect in the Legislature.
To that end, the group appears headed toward focusing on programs that help children from birth to 5 years old. The group also is considering whether to try and fit Kansas with a program similar to one called Smart Start in North Carolina.
The Smart Start program is an early childhood initiative that uses state dollars to leverage private and federal dollars and gets local communities involved in setting up programs. These programs are geared toward getting children ready when they start school.
Its major cheerleader has been North Carolina's governor, Jim Hunt.
Cussimanio recently formed a team to analyze the North Carolina program. "I think we're definitely headed in the right direction," Cussimanio said. "Folks are right, the time is now. We need to make a difference. We need to produce for Kansas kids and I think we will produce."