Jackson County Chancery Court Judge Jaye Bradley reversed her own December 2000 decision earmarking $20 million to The Partnership For a Healthy Mississippi, possibly jeopardizing the program's smoking-cessation programs.
While admitting that "Mississippi arguably has the most successful tobacco cessation program in the nation," Bradley explained that her original decision was based on the apparent agreement between the governor and the Legislature that the $20 million should be allocated out of the tobacco fund.
"It is clear that … the executive and legislative branches of government no longer agree to the order in question," Bradley wrote in a May 30 decision. "The court finds that to prevent a continuing question as to constitutionality and separation of powers should the parties again change their position in the future, the decision regarding expenditure of funds is appropriately a legislative function."
Bradley did not write off the court's powers altogether, though. She still maintained that the court reserved injunctive power regarding the terms of the settlement, but as to matters concerning allocation and fund disbursements, the court would leave that for the Legislature to squabble over.
For decades, the tobacco industry managed to sell the world the lie that cigarettes were not harmful. "A Frank Statement," issued by Phillip Morris & Co., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and others in a Jan. 4, 1954, argument in the New York Times, declared: "We believe the products we make are not injurious to health," and that experiments wiping tobacco tar on the backs of lab mice (which caused tumors) were "not regarded as conclusive in the field of cancer research."
Big Tobacco stuck to its guns, even after Wayne McLaren, who modeled the "Marlboro Man," died of lung cancer in 1992. They stayed firm in denial until the late 1990s, when a scientist inside the industry finally came forth with the truth. State Attorney General Mike Moore wasted no time in scooping up the whistle-blower, using his testimony to add weight to a state lawsuit against the tobacco industry, claiming the industry willfully sold poison to Mississippians.
It was a hard, nasty fight, but Moore's team of state and private attorneys staggered back out of the fray with armfuls of cash for the state, bringing in a stunning $4.1 billion settlement in its Medicaid case against the industry.
The money has been sitting in the state's tobacco fund, but it has not been sitting idle. Twenty million dollars of it was annually earmarked to the private non-profit Partnership, which is dedicated to curbing smoking in the state through school programs, child-targeted advertising and cessation programs. The partnership also funds school nurses—a luxury that many state schools can hardly afford because of persistent budget shortfalls.
The money has also gone to save the state budget from those same budget shortfalls, with legislators regularly voting to tap it to fill budgetary holes during the legislative session.
Former tobacco lobbyist Gov. Haley Barbour wants to have discretion over any money going to the Partnership, rather than having it automatically earmarked to the program, however.
"I want that money to go through the regular legislative process, like any other budget matter," Barbour told the JFP earlier this year, meaning he wants to be able to veto it.
Barbour, backed by State Treasurer Tate Reeves, filed a court case in 2005, saying the $20 million deduction to the Partnership was unconstitutional. They used the lawsuit as leverage in 2006 to demand that the Legislature offer a bill funding the Partnership. The House responded with HB 1115—which Barbour promptly vetoed.
Barbour defines his reasons for killing the funding as "pro-taxpayer," arguing that the automatic debit to the Partnership is irresponsible. The Partnership maintains that it is saving the state millions of dollars in future health-care costs as smoking decreases among the state's younger generations.
"The Partnership's programs have reduced smoking by 48 percent among public middle-school students and by 32 percent among public high-school students," said Sharon Garrison, communications director for the Partnership during the battle for HB 1115. "That decline is a lot faster than what other states are managing. We actually work. We just don't know why (Barbour) would want to stop that."
Mike Moore, who directs the Partnership, thinks he knows why, declaring the governor's reasons for denying funding to the program as "other than stated."
"I think he just wants to kill the program, which is unfortunate because it's one of the things in Mississippi that's actually working," Moore said. He disagreed with Judge Bradley's decision that she had lost her authority because the governor and the legislative branch now disagree on the $20 million earmark.
"Before there was agreement. Now there's disagreement, and she has to change her ruling? That part of the logic doesn't make a lot of sense to me," Moore said, adding that he plans to take the fight back to the Legislature, which has largely supported the $20 million allocation.
"The Legislature will again pass a bill if we ask them to. Whether or not they have the two-thirds votes in each house to override any veto is another question, but it might be time to take the fight to the people," Moore said.
Moore said he was willing to meet with Barbour and hash out a "Healthy Kids" initiative that Barbour would approve, but until a decision is reached, Partnership funding is stifled by the Barbour/Reeves injunction. The Partnership has already had to cut funding to many of its programs this year. Moore filed an appeal to the injunction this week, but said it might be time to take the decision to the people, suggesting a statewide referendum vote in November 2007.
If Partnership supporters collect 120,000 signatures, the referendum will move ahead, Moore said, adding that he believed the Partnership has a loyal following all across the state.
Polls show a majority of the state, both Republicans and Democrats, favored a tax increase on cigarette packs in both 2005 and 2006. Barbour repeatedly vetoed that tax.
"(A voter referendum) is one thing we don't need the governor's approval for," Moore said.
No matter what is ultimately done with the money it is bad governance to allow public funds to be diverted from the appropiation process of the legislature. A secret fund administered by even the best intentioned politicians is going to slip into scandal. I predict that after the funds are transfered to the public treasury and an audit is done by the auditor people will go to jail.