Va. No-Smoking Effort Targeted in Cost Cuts
RICHMOND, Feb. 26 -- Virginia's nascent campaign to keep kids from smoking would be gutted even before it begins by proposals to take $15 million from a state-run anti-smoking foundation to help balance the budget, the foundation's leaders said today.
Officials at the Virginia Tobacco Settlement Foundation are set to announce a three-year campaign of anti-smoking messages on television, radio and billboards and in newspapers. A companion three-year research project on the stages of teenage cigarette addiction also is set to begin.
Those efforts, as well as grants to scores of schools, park authorities and nonprofit groups statewide, are threatened by what the organizers characterize as a money grab during tight economic times.
"They are trying to figure out how to take care of a $3.8 billion shortfall. It's kind of like, 'Let's scoop this in, too,' " said Steven Danish, chairman of the foundation's board of trustees. "It's really serious. I kept on believing that they wouldn't do this."
That the foundation was created at all three years ago was a milestone for Virginia, where tobacco growers reigned supreme for most of the last century. The group is financed with 10 percent of the money Virginia receives from the national settlement with tobacco companies. Each year, it receives about $14 million.
In its first two years, however, the group did not spend all its money. Danish says it took time to plan an effective anti-smoking campaign. And he says his panel decided to husband its resources for a larger effort than it could afford with the money from a single year.
In December, then-Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) proposed to reduce the group's budget by $15 million, essentially taking back the money it had saved. His successor, Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), included the same proposal in his budget a month later.
Several lawmakers tried unsuccessfully this session to amend the House and Senate budget proposals to restore the $15 million. As it stands now, the foundation would lose the money under all of the proposals being considered.
Some key lawmakers from Virginia's tobacco country also have weighed in on behalf of the anti-smoking foundation. That's because the agreement to create the foundation also established a sister organization dedicated to economic development for tobacco farmers. That group gets 50 percent of the tobacco settlement money, and the lawmakers are worried that their part of the agreement could be in jeopardy.
Next week, a handful of lawmakers will begin meeting to resolve differences between the House and Senate budgets. They could decide to let the foundation keep its money. A spokesman for Warner declined to comment.