Partnership attorneys ask judge to keep tobacco money out of fund

Published 10:38 pm Saturday, September 9, 2006

The Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi on Friday asked a judge to maintain a separate account for $20 million it would have received for anti-tobacco programs until the state Supreme Court rules on the legality of the payments.

The Partnership wants to keep the money out of the Mississippi Health Care Trust fund where it could be spent on other programs, said Partnership spokeswoman Sharon Garrison.

At the same time, the Partnership asked Jackson County Circuit Judge Jaye Bradley to stop enforcement of her May order that cut off funding until the Supreme Court can hear its appeal. Bradley did not immediately rule on the motions.

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“That $20 million has been held in a separate account during all of these proceedings. Nobody has access to it,” Garrison said. “We’re asking her to let it stay where it is, rather than transferring it to the Health Care Trust Fund.”

In May, Bradley overturned her December 2000 order that had directed $20 million a year to the Partnership, a private nonprofit group led by former Attorney General Mike Moore.

Bradley said lawmakers, not a court, should decide how the money is spent — a position that’s been argued by Gov. Haley Barbour. The ruling effectively stopped the payments to the Partnership.

The Partnership said it would appeal the ruling to the Mississippi Supreme Court.

Garrison said none of the $20 million has been budgeted for Partnership programs.

“We are operating out of reserve funding,” Garrison said. “Programs are funded at drastically reduced levels. We do have all our school programs and school nurses in place because we think it’s so important that our children have access to these programs.”

Meanwhile, attorneys for the governor have filed a motion requesting Bradley stay her May 2006 order “to the extent to which that order does not require the Partnership to transfer all unexpended funds received” under her 2000 ruling.

The motion asks that Bradley declare the initial ruling void and order all tobacco settlement payments, both retrospectively and currently, to be paid to the health care trust fund.

“They’re trying to take the money that Partnership is using to operate,” said Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood.

Barbour spokesman Pete Smith said he couldn’t comment on Friday’s proceedings. Smith said the governor’s position is unchanged.

“It’s been unconstitutional for the Partnership to be receiving this money,” Smith said.

The Partnership’s money comes from Mississippi’s tobacco lawsuit settlement negotiated in 1997 by Moore, who has been the Partnership’s chairman since it was formed.

The settlement is bringing the state about $4 billion over 25 years, with most of the money going to the trust fund, which pays for health-related programs.

The Partnership has sponsored a wide variety of activities, including smoking-cessation programs and ad campaigns. The group also hires school nurses and funds groups like 4-H clubs. It also has helped pay for local law officers’ efforts to police sales of tobacco and alcohol to minors.