EDITOR’S VIEWPOINT/Local governments think states are blowing smoke
Local governments are complaining about President Bush’s homeland security budget. The problem is not that the budget doesn’t contain enough money; it’s just where cities and counties perceive the money is going.
Two words are haunting the nation’s cities and counties, two words that cause mayors and county commissioners to break out in an ugly rash, two words that fill them with loathing. Two words: tobacco settlement.
In 1998, a group of tobacco companies gave in to what has been called “legalized extortion” and dumped $206 billion on state governments, which, like good big brothers and sisters, were expected to share the wealth. The money was supposed to be targeted at anti-smoking efforts.
Instead, it has paid for schools in New Hampshire, health care for low-income residents in Arizona, property tax rebates in Illinois and college scholarships in Michigan. Tennessee, Wisconsin, Washington and probably plenty of other states are using it to plug budget shortfalls.
The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids estimates that only five states are spending the money on anti-smoking programs at the levels recommended by the federal government. (The feds recommended that the states use 20 to 25 percent of the money for tobacco control programs.)
The group also notes that three states — Michigan, North Carolina and Tennessee (the latter two depend on people smoking for a good chunk of their agricultural economies) — will spend zero money on anti-smoking measures. The National Conference of State Legislatures estimates that only $1 in $20 of the settlement money will be spent on anti-smoking programs this year.
According to the Detroit Free Press, Michigan has used “Enron-like accounting techniques” to make it look as if the money is being used to target smoking, when, in fact, it is being used for general health care (dental care, nutrition, mammograms).
Local governments are so disenchanted with state stewardship of the money that some of them have decided to sue the tobacco industry by themselves. (Give ’em credit: they can spot a sugar daddy as well as the states can.) But, according to the national settlement, any money won by a local government would be deducted from the state’s share. So it’s not surprising that state supreme courts and legislatures have rushed to squelch such efforts.
More than anything, the tobacco settlement is why cities and counties are finding it hard to buy the states’ “trust-us-we-know-what-we’re-doing” line now. To some, locals’ complaints about the homeland security budget make them look whiny and small. But it’s really just a matter of “once burned, twice shy.”