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Possible fund diversion stirs concern



Published: Tue, June 21, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Anti-smoking groups say they may have to discontinue some programs.

By JEFF ORTEGA

VINDICATOR CORRESPONDENT

COLUMBUS -- Anti-smoking advocates warn of potential cuts to smoking prevention programs statewide if $216 million of the national tobacco settlement is diverted to help fund the new two-year, $51 billion state budget.

Over the weekend, a joint panel of House and Senate lawmakers voted to take $216 million over the next two years from the national tobacco settlement earmarked for smoking-cessation programs. The money would be used to fund school construction, auto emissions testing for drivers in Northeast Ohio and for other purposes in the proposed new two-year state budget.

"Whether we talk about impacting programs now or impacting programs at some point in the future, there is $216 million that will not be put to help people quit smoking," said Mike Renner, executive director of the Tobacco Use Prevention and Control (TUPAC) Foundation.

Susan Jagers, vice president of government relations for the American Cancer Society of Ohio, said, "It makes me think that keeping kids from smoking is a low priority with this General Assembly."

The House and Senate are scheduled to consider the state budget conference report -- including the proposed diversion of the tobacco settlement funds -- as early as today before forwarding the state spending plan to Republican Gov. Bob Taft for his signature.

The state must enact a new balanced two-year budget by July 1.

"In a really tight budget sometimes priorities get reworked a little bit," said state Sen. Ron Amstutz, R-Wooster, who sat on the budget conference committee.

Settlement distribution

According to Renner, the foundation received an initial payment of $330 million in 2000-01 for smoking prevention programs.

Assuming lawmakers retain the diversion provisions in the proposed new state outlay, state officials will have diverted nearly $570 million of the settlement with major tobacco companies in recent years for state-budget purposes.

The proposed diversion of $216 million in tobacco settlement dollars is among the final payments to smoking cessation under the settlement agreement, foundation officials say.

Without additional funding, the TUPAC Foundation will have to decide whether to continue or scale back current programming, Renner said.

The foundation currently funds Stand Ohio, a program to discourage youth from smoking, as well as community-based smoking-cessation efforts.

Renner said the organization's board will have decisions to make when it meets in August.

"Does [the foundation] want to preserve what it has now as a permanent endowment or use the money over the six to eight years at a very robust level of programming, knowing full well we'll have to turn out the lights six to eight years from now?" Renner said.

This year, the foundation has spent $40 million in programming, an amount that has not only consumed the interest provided on the foundation's endowment but has also eaten into the principal, Renner said.

The current two-year, $48 billion state budget runs through June 30.




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