Barbour asks Miss. high court for speedy ruling on anti-tobacco money

Published 6:12 pm Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Gov. Haley Barbour and Medicaid officials have asked the Mississippi Supreme Court to speed up a decision on whether $20 million in annual payments to a private anti-tobacco group are legal.

In addition, the governor and the others, in documents filed with the court on Friday, asked the Supreme Court to stop The Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi from spending any more money until the appeal is decided.

The governor, Medicaid and the Mississippi Health Care Trust Fund are appealing a Sept. 12 ruling by a Jackson County chancellor that the Partnership didn’t have to give back any of the money it had received over the past 5 1/2 years.

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Chancellor Jaye Bradley also denied a request from the Partnership to create a separate account for $20 million until the Supreme Court decides the case.

The appeal filed by Barbour and the others breaks no new legal ground. They claim the $20 million payments to the Partnership are illegal and any funds coming from the settlement of a lawsuit with the tobacco industry can be allocated only by the Legislature.

“In order to preserve the status quo pending appeal, the expenditure by the Partnership of the contested funds should be stayed until this court has determined the proper recipient of the funds,” according to the appeal.

Without a stay, contested funds could be spent while a final decision is pending, the appeal says.

Partnership spokeswoman Sharon Garrison said Monday that the group had not yet seen the appeal. She said the Partnership would file a response soon.

Barbour contends in court documents that as of May 31, 2005, the Partnership had $31 million. Garrison said the Partnership does not have that much money now. She said that money was from previous years.

“At some point in time, it would have looked like we had that amount, but we certainly do not now,” Garrison said.

She said the Partnership is operating on interest it had earned on previous years’ payments and reserves, which Bradley did not order the Partnership to turn over.

“We’re trying to keep some level of tobacco prevention going until the Legislature can get back into session and restore comprehensive programs for the state,” Garrison said.

The chairman of the Partnership’s board is former Attorney General Mike Moore, a Democrat who made national headlines in the 1990s by making Mississippi the first state to sue tobacco companies over the costs of treating sick smokers.

Barbour, a Republican who lobbied for tobacco companies in Washington before becoming governor, filed a lawsuit in 2005 to challenge the legality of Bradley’s December 2000 court order that directed $20 million a year to the Partnership.

In May, Bradley overturned her 2000 ruling, saying that lawmakers, not a court, should decide how the money is spent. The ruling stopped the payments to the Partnership.

Mississippi is collecting about $4 billion over 25 years in its tobacco lawsuit settlement, with most of the money going to the Health Care Trust Fund, which was established by the Legislature and pays for a variety of programs.

The Partnership has sponsored a wide range of activities, including smoking-cessation programs and anti-tobacco ad campaigns. The group also hires school nurses and funds groups such as 4-H clubs.