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Group’s funding under gun in upcoming hearing

With $20 million hanging in the balance for the Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi, the anti-tobacco group goes to court this spring to defend itself against those who argue the group’s funding is unconstitutional.

The upcoming hearing was allowed to proceed after Jackson County Chancery Court Judge Jaye A. Bradley granted motions to intervene last month that were filed by Gov. Haley Barbour on behalf of the state, the Medicaid Division of the Office of the Governor and the Mississippi Health Care Trust Fund. Due to substantial damage to the Jackson County Chancery Courts Building, the hearing was held on the Jackson County Fairgrounds.

With Bradley’s December decision to hear the case, the governor and other parties are moving forward in their effort to vacate a five-year-old court order secured by former Attorney General Mike Moore in Jackson County Chancery Court that channels $20 million of the state’s tobacco settlement money directly to the Partnership’s private account each year. Barbour and the other parties argue that the court order is unconstitutional, as held by a 2003 report by the legislative Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER). They believe the $20 million should go to the Health Care Trust Fund, along with the rest of the tobacco settlement money.

The Partnership and Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood want to see the 2000 court order stand. They maintain the $20 million secured by Moore is the figure recommended by the Centers for Disease Control as a necessary amount to effectively fund the group’s anti-tobacco programs and advertising. The Partnership argues that this money is spent on prevention will ultimately save Mississippi taxpayers millions of dollars by cutting down on tobacco-related illnesses.

At the hearing, the Partnership was also granted a motion to intervene, making the group a party in the upcoming hearing. The Partnership is being represented pro bono by Phelps Dunbar, LLP.

“I don’t think there was anything unconstitutional or illegal about the way this settlement was set up” said Phelps Dunbar attorney Jim Craig, who is representing the Partnership along with partners Jim Shelson and Fred Banks.

“The statute specifically says that the trust fund gets all the money except money directed by court order for tobacco prevention programs. We think the Legislature understood this is the way it was set up.

“I think what’s being missed on the actual merits of the case is that Attorney General Moore asked for two different kinds of relief — money to be paid back to the state to compensate the state for healthcare costs caused by tobacco, and a court order for tobacco companies to positively undo the damage caused by advertising,” said Craig. “Instead of just telling tobacco companies to do something, the settlement said, ‘Pay money to the Partnership to do that job.’ There is nothing unconstitutional about that.”

Mississippi received $216 million in FY2005 and $186 million in FY2006 from tobacco companies. Since Moore’s 1997 landmark settlement with the tobacco companies for more than $3 billion for Mississippi, the Partnership has received $100 million. Unlike the rest of the state’s money, the Partnership’s funds are not appropriated by the Legislature and are not subject to state audit. State Treasurer Tate Reeves, chairman of the Health Care Trust Fund, said Judge Bradley’s recent decision confirms the trust fund’s position that its trustees have not only a right, but an obligation, to protect the interest of the trust. “I believe it is unconstitutional for $20 million that rightfully belongs to the people of Mississippi to be diverted to a private organization with no public accountability on the expenditure of those funds.”

Barbour said Bradley’s decision at this preliminary stage was a victory for taxpayers, “even though everyone knows this case will ultimately be decided by the state Supreme Court.”
If the court order is vacated, the Legislature will decide how much money to appropriate to the Partnership. Right now, the majority of the tobacco settlement money goes to Medicaid.

Partnership spokesperson Sharon Garrison said the Partnership looks forward to the next hearing when the anti-tobacco group will be allowed to be a party in the hearings.

“We can represent the funding and prevention programs that will save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars,” she said.

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

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