W.Va Mulls Bonds for Tobacco Funds
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - Patience is becoming a hard virtue to stick by when dealing with the windfall from a lucrative tobacco settlement for a growing number of state and local governments that now includes West Virginia.
The government version of Lotto fever is gripping the nation in the wake of the $206 billion settlement in 1998 with tobacco companies sued by 46 states to recoup health-related expenses caused by tobacco use. Participating states were offered millions of dollars each year for 25 years, based on tobacco sales, and given the discretion to spend the cash however they want.
Unlike some of their peers, West Virginia lawmakers took a cautious approach from the start, setting aside the money for immediate health care costs and savings for a rainy day.
But now Gov. Bob Wise's administration plans to ask legislators to consider a new strategy that takes a big payday now in case the stream of annual payments dries up later.
The path being considered is well-trodden by states ranging from Louisiana to Wisconsin and thrills Wall Street experts. But it raises questions from health care advocates who fear governments may lose perspective in a dash for quick cash.
``The bottom line is are the dollars being used to prevent and to stop tobacco usage?'' said Chuck Hamsher, lobbyist for the West Virginia branch of the American Heart Association (news - web sites).
The well-publicized settlement has created a number of dilemmas for governing bodies nationwide, and the avenues chosen are almost endless.
Many states have set aside much of the money in trust funds that built interest while lawmakers plan their next step. They've also set aside portions to take care of more pressing budget matters, such as health care needs, school construction and budget deficits.
West Virginia's leaders have so far followed that example with built-in restraints for the annual payment, which will range from about $50 million to $80 million a year and is expected to add up to as much as $1.9 billion over 25 years.
They set up two funds for the money, with half paying for programs such as public health initiatives and health insurance for state employees and half stored away in a lockbox out of which only the interest - about $2.5 million a year now - can be spent.
But Wise's Administration Department says it has a better way to capitalize on the money.
While details are still being worked out, Administration Secretary Greg Burton outlined for lawmakers this week a plan that would let the state take its windfall in a lump sum payment now and sell the rights to a third-party bonding agency in a process called securitization. That company would then sell bonds to investors, who would get their money back plus interest each year as settlement payments are made by tobacco companies.
Burton and other supporters say that system has many benefits. West Virginia would get most of its money immediately, ending any chance the state would lose out on millions if tobacco companies go bankrupt. In addition, investors would have to back the bonds if tobacco sales go south and payments dry up, not the state.
Lawmakers could decide to take that nest egg and pay off the bonds early, maximizing long-term gain. They could allocate it for just about any purpose. Or they could let it sit and grow, which on a $350 million trust fund could mean $20 million in interest a year, Burton said.
``We're going to get pretty close to what we normally would have gotten,'' Burton said. ``We'll get some certain return.''
That approach is gaining popularity.
Wisconsin took roughly a $1 billion lump sum, with about half used to plug a budget hole and half used for an endowment to stem tobacco use. South Carolina is using about $900 million to set up a similar endowment, along with funding to help tobacco farmers and promote economic development throughout the state.
Iowa lawmakers and counties in New York and California have approved securitization to pay for everything from health care to tax relief.
This month, Louisiana set aside about 60 percent of its $4.6 billion settlement for securitization and left 40 percent in annual payments. Burton said a system that only securitizes half of the money is what West Virginia officials are considering.
Officials in Nevada, Virginia, Colorado, Florida, South Dakota and Tennessee are making pushes for securitization, too.
But for all its acclaim, the process does have downsides.
Depending on payment structure, taking the lump sum could mean a loss much like when lottery winners trade immediate reward for bigger long-term gain.
Lee Dixon, health policy tracking director for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said states can get as little as 25 cents on the dollar on Wall Street for taking the lump sum. For example, Wisconsin could have gotten as much as $5.9 billion over 25 years, while South Carolina's windfall could have been $3.2 billion.
The quick cash also could be complicated by a sluggish stock market and investor apprehension in the fallout of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. But states that need the money now still may find securitization the best choice, Dixon said.
``That's a decision the state just has to make given their current priorities and needs,'' Dixon said.