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Partnership off to court to decide anti-tobacco group’s fate

Every December, $20 million of the state’s tobacco settlement money is deposited into the bank account of the Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi.

The anti-tobacco group uses the money for advertising and educational programs aimed at preventing tobacco use among kids and adults in Mississippi. So far, the Partnership has received $100 million in settlement money, and it’s long been a bone of contention for some legislators and other politicians who believe the Legislature should have the final say on how the money is spent.

For years, legislative bills to take control of the Partnership’s money have died in committee, but the tide turned this year when Medicaid, which is a division of the Governor’s Office, and the Mississippi Health Care Trust Fund filed separate motions in Jackson County Chancery Court to intervene and vacate the order so that the funds could be appropriated by the Legislature.

The tide turned again in May when Attorney General Jim Hood asked for and received an indefinite continuance, during which time a specially-appointed committee of legislators would have the opportunity to study the Partnership’s programs.

Then August 8, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed the continuance, with only one dissenting vote. Following the decision, the Chancery Court gave the parties two dates to choose from — one in October and one in December — for their day in court. At press time, the court date had not been announced.

“The law is clear, and I strongly believe we will ultimately win,” said Barbour. “This $20 million is taxpayer money, and the Mississippi Constitution makes it plain that these dollars must be appropriated by the Legislature, not by a court order. Medicaid recipients are the state’s most urgent healthcare responsibility, and this $20-million annual payment with a federal match, could provide nearly $80 million for needy Mississippians.”

State Treasurer Tate Reeves called the Supreme Court’s reversal a “victory for the taxpayers of Mississippi who demand accountability for public funds.” Reeves is chairman of the seven-member Health Care Trust Fund, whose members would like to see the money go to the Health Care Trust Fund where the rest of the tobacco money is deposited annually to be spent for healthcare-related purposes.

Crux of the argument

Mississippi received $216 million in FY2005 and $186 million in FY2006 from tobacco companies. Medicaid takes the lion’s share of the money, and herein lies the Partnership’s argument. The state gives Medicaid approximately $243 million every year for tobacco-related illnesses, while the Partnership spends $20 million to prevent it, said Sharon Garrison, spokesperson for the Partnership.

Treating tobacco-related illnesses costs Medicaid approximately $243 million every year, while the Partnership spends $20 million to prevent these diseases, said Sharon Garrison, spokesperson for the Partnership.

“If we don’t continue these programs, the cost to Medicaid is only going to up,” she said. “The mortality rate for lung caner is equal to the prevalence rate. No one gets cured, and it is an expensive disease to treat.”

Judging by the Partnership’s track record, prevention does seem to be worth a pound of cure. The latest figures released by the Partnership show that since 1999, smoking is down 32% among public high school students, and 48% among public middle school students.

The Partnership’s $20 million is based on a recommendation by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) on how much the state should spend to effectively combat tobacco use. The group uses the money for anti-tobacco advertising, like the TV ads starring Terrence the RAT, who tells kids to “Reject All Tobacco.” These and other ads attempt to combat the approximately $200 million that tobacco companies spend each year marketing their products in Mississippi alone.

Behind the scenes, the Partnership has developed a comprehensive list of programs in schools and communities. These include a tobacco quit line (1-800-244-9100), four age-appropriate programs that target kids from kindergarten to 12th grade, faith-based tobacco prevention programs, law enforcement training programs to cut down on illegal tobacco sales to minors, and grants to 33 community coalitions around the state to provide a local presence and a local resource for communities.

Checks and balances

Critics of the Partnership question why the group is allowed to bypass the legislative process to spend state money when all other money coming into the state is appropriated by the Legislature. As a private corporation, the Partnership is also not subject to state audits.

Garrison said the Partnership has always worked closely with the Legislature. Just under half of the Partnership’s money goes to agencies and organizations that must get approval from the Legislature, she said, offering up the example of the state Department of Health, which receives $2.5 million from the Partnership to fund the school tobacco nurse program in 52 school districts.

“We’ve always worked with the Legislature on program funding,” said Garrison. “We welcome any input they have, as we want everyone to understand how these dollars are being utilized. We want to find a solution.”

The Partnership and its supporters recently spent nearly four hours in a special hearing before the six Mississippi legislators who were appointed by Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck and House Speaker Billy McCoy to study the group’s programs. They are Rep. Cecil Brown (D-Jackson), Rep. Johnny Stringer (D-Montrose), Rep. Percy Watson (D-Hattiesburg), Sen. Terry Burton (R-Newton), Sen. Buck Clarke (R-Hollandale) and Sen. Billy Thames (D-Mize).

Among those appearing before the legislators were former Attorney General Mike Moore, Hood, Partnership executive director Sandra Shelson and Mike Myers, president of the national Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

According to Myers, Mississippi is one of the few states that has consistently funded its tobacco prevention program at the levels recommended by the CDC. “In other states, we have seen progress come to a halt because tobacco prevention programs and policies were not sustained,” said Myers in a statement.

Burton said the presenters did a good job explaining the Partnership’s mission, but he felt too much time was spent on the lawsuits, making the hearing more controversial than it should have been. The legislators didn’t even want the lawsuit to be a part of the hearing, he said. Their job is to sift through mountains of information and, simply put, decide if the state has received $100 million in benefits for $100 million in funding, said Burton.

“There’s no question we’ve seen some benefits. Youth smoking is down. Adult smoking is down. A lot of education has been done with the money,” he said. “What we want to look at now is individual grants to churches and communities…was it educational, or was it for pizza?”

Burton said he stands by the legislative 2003 Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER) report that said the money should be appropriated by the Legislature, along with the rest of the settlement money.

“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” he said. “I think it should go into the fund and be appropriated out of there.”

Contact MBJ Staff Writer Kelly Ingebretsen at kelly@msbusiness.com.

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