Wording of Measure on Tobacco Funds OKd
Ventura County attorneys on Friday approved the title and wording of a proposed ballot initiative that would divert the county's $260-million tobacco settlement revenue to private health care providers, clearing the way for Community Memorial Hospital to
But county officials maintain the initiative violates the state Constitution because it proposes to strip the government's power to control its own budget. The officials said they are prepared to wage a legal fight against the Community Memorial initiative and plan to solicit the support of other counties, whose own shares of the state's tobacco settlement money could be at risk.
"This is so blatantly against the [state] Constitution and the whole fabric of government," Supervisor Frank Schillo said. "One way or another this is going to go all the way to the Supreme Court. If it happens here, then it can happen anyplace."
Meanwhile, about 40 local residents, who are angry at Community Memorial's attempt to wrest tobacco money from the Ventura County Medical Center, are launching their own campaign against the proposed initiative.
"They [residents] were indignant about the fact that [Community Memorial] is trying to take money away from the county," Schillo said.
As required by law, County Counsel Jim McBride submitted a 500-word explanation of the initiative to the Ventura County clerk's office Friday evening, thereby allowing Community Memorial to launch its campaign. Community Memorial has until May 23 to gather 20,871 voter signatures for its ballot petition.
McBrides' summary of the initiative will be presented by petitioners to potential signers. The formal title of the initiative is "An initiative to transfer the county's tobacco settlement revenues to private hospitals and others and to prohibit all use of such settlement moneys for any county medical use."
The summary states the Community Memorial measure would "forever appropriate" an average $10 million each year in tobacco settlement revenue to private hospitals and doctors, skilled nursing and in-home services for the elderly, immunization services and nursing scholarships. The county is expected to collect about $260 million in settlement revenue over the next 25 years.
McBride could not be reached for comment Friday.
Last week, county supervisors directed McBride to review legal strategies that would block the Community Memorial initiative. At the time, McBride called the initiative "unconstitutional."
Community Memorial spokesman Mark Barnhill said Friday that claim disregards the public's own right to decide how to spend the money.
"Any power that the government has to spend the public's money derives from the electorate," Barnhill said. "And the electorate has the absolute authority, via the initiative process, to exercise its will about how the money should be spent."
Community Memorial officials expect to start gathering signatures by Wednesday to meet the May 23 deadline.
"We're moving ahead," Barnhill said.
The hospital plans to form a fund-raising group, similar to one used four years ago for another Community Memorial campaign, to pay for professional signature gatherers and consulting services, Barnhill said.
Community Memorial spent nearly $1.6 million in 1995 and 1996 to place a referendum on the ballot aimed at derailing Ventura County Medical Center's plans to build a $56-million outpatient wing.
Community Memorial officials said the Measure X campaign, which was the most costly local campaign in county history, was a protective measure to keep the county hospital from encroaching on Community Memorial's business.
Schillo said about 40 local residents are organizing to help fight Community Memorial's latest political campaign.
"They were indignant about the fact that [Community Memorial is] trying to take money away from the county," Schillo said. "And they said they wanted to teach them a lesson after Measure X, that they can't just run over the county hospital."
After signatures are gathered, the county registrar's office has 30 business days to verify the names and submit them to the Board of Supervisors for final approval review by July 11.
Ventura County's elections office is staffed to handle only six initiatives at a time, and 37 measures have already qualified with the state to gather signatures, said Bruce Bradley, the county's assistant registrar.
As a result, supervisors may need to circumvent the county's hiring freeze to beef up the elections staff to handle the additional workload, Bradley said.
The board can delay approval of the measure until Aug. 15 by ordering a 30-day study to determine the fiscal impact of putting it up for a vote.
But Bradley said, "Once the signatures are gathered, they don't really have a choice but to have an election."