Tobacco money still a political football
SPRINGFIELD - When Illinois started collecting its share of the $9.1 billion settlement from the nation's tobacco companies, public health officials rejoiced with visions that much of the windfall would be spent on innovative anti-smoking programs.
But the cigarette cash has become a political football in the two years since the state started spending it.
Last year, lawmakers dipped into the fund to pay for an election-year property tax rebate and pork projects, spending only $27 million of the tobacco company money on smoking prevention.
This year, the news is somewhat better: Legislators are poised to nearly double the amount for prevention programs to $50 million, and county health departments throughout the suburbs stand to benefit greatly.
But a sizable chunk of the rest of the $317 million in tobacco money is at the heart of the budget battle between Republican Gov. George Ryan and the duo of Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan and Republican Senate President James "Pate" Philip.
The governor wants to earmark approximately $40 million a year from the tobacco fund to pay for several buildings at medical schools for research as part of his overall $1.2 billion spending plan for new roads and buildings.
Madigan, however, remains opposed to that much borrowing, given the state's uncertain economy. He's using Ryan's desire to borrow money for plum projects around the state as a bargaining chip to get $360 million put into the budget for pork projects for state legislators.
For its part, the Ryan administration is using the potential nixing of the medical research buildings paid for by tobacco money as part of its rhetoric in budget negotiations. Ryan spokesman Dennis Culloton repeatedly invoked the fear that "cancer and juvenile diabetes research" would suffer if the governor's borrowing plan is cut.
While that part of the tobacco money and Ryan's overall construction plan remains in limbo this weekend, another portion appears to be set for approval.
Rep. John Fritchey, a Chicago Democrat who is co-chairman of the House's tobacco settlement panel, said $106 million will pay for last year's expansion of the state's circuit breaker program, which helps thousands of senior citizens pay for prescription drugs.
Another $35 million will go to cover the cost of a state income tax cut for the poor. Another undetermined portion could go into the state's rainy day fund. And then only $50 million goes to smoking prevention programs, which is what Attorney General Jim Ryan envisioned the money would go for when he settled the tobacco lawsuit along with other 45 other states.
Still, it's progress, public health leaders say.
"I think we recognize that not all of this money is not going to be put in smoking prevention," said Leland Lewis, executive director of the DuPage County Health Department. "Considering the amount of money last year, I think this is a positive step."
Annie Tegen, director of health policy at the American Lung Association in Chicago, said she is encouraged by the new money but points out the Centers for Disease Control recommends Illinois spend at least $67 million to make anti-smoking efforts effective.
"We were really discouraged to see how the money was allocated last year," Tegen said. "We feel that all of the money should be allocated for health care. We're hoping the legislature will move in that direction."
Both Tegen and Lewis acknowledged that helping provide seniors with prescription drugs is using the tobacco money for health care.
Lewis said it also would be useful for lawmakers to map out a multi-year blueprint for spending the cigarette cash because it would help county health departments plan programs and get more effective results.
Until then, DuPage health workers will continue trying to get people to stop smoking. Folks can see their efforts on billboards, ads that run in movie theaters before the movie starts playing, and at a booth at the Kane County Cougars games this weekend.