• 68°

Miss. high court orders Partnership to quit spending during appeal

The Mississippi Supreme Court on Thursday ordered the Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi to stop spending money until justices decide the legality of $20 million in annual payments to the private, nonprofit anti-tobacco group.

The justices, in a 6-1 order, granted a motion filed by Gov. Haley Barbour and others to who have challenged the allocation of money to the Partnership.

“The Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi is deeply disappointed by the ruling,” spokeswoman Sharon Garrison said. “While the court’s order does allow the Partnership to keep and use fund from sources other than the state’s annual tobacco settlement payments, that amount of money is only enough to fund a fraction of the Partnership’s programs.”

Barbour, Medicaid and the Mississippi Health Care Trust Fund are appealing a September ruling by Jackson County Chancellor Jaye Bradley that the Partnership didn’t have to give back any of the money it had received during the previous 5 1/2 years.

“The Mississippi Supreme Court’s ruling is encouraging for those of us who believe it is unconstitutional for a local court to give state taxpayers money to a private organization,” Barbour said. “State taxpayers money can only be spent through the legislative process.”

Garrison, the Partnership spokeswoman, said the ruling could threaten the jobs of school nurses who are paid by the organization.

Barbour disagreed.

“It is important that we not allow the school nurse program to be interrupted,” the Republican governor said. “I am confident we will find the necessary money to keep schools nurses on the job until the Legislature can appropriate funding for this purpose in the 2007 regular session.”

House Public Health Committee Chairman Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, denounced the ruling, calling Barbour a “tyrant.”

“I continue to be sickened and disappointed that the governor … has now destroyed what the Centers for Disease Control has said was the model tobacco cessation program in America,” Holland said. “Every citizen in the State of Mississippi who believes in a strong public health program should rise up in arms against this tyrant who obviously to this day remains 100 percent beholden to Big Tobacco.”

Before becoming governor, Barbour was a high-powered Washington lobbyist whose client list included cigarette makers.

Justice Chuck Easley, the court’s one dissenting vote, said the “stay amounts to eliminating the Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi before this court has the opportunity to review the merits of the appeal.”

Mississippi in 1997 settled its massive lawsuit against the tobacco industry, which was filed to recover public costs of treating sick smokers. The Partnership was created later as a pilot program using separate payments from cigarette makers.

When the money for the pilot program ran out, then-Attorney General Mike Moore — a Democrat who had filed the tobacco lawsuit — obtained a December 2000 court order from Bradley that directed part of Mississippi’s annual settlement payments to the Partnership.

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 of the September ruling broke no new legal ground. Barbour and others say the millions of dollars in payments to the Partnership are illegal and any money coming from the tobacco lawsuit settlement can be allocated only by the Legislature.

Without a stay, contested funds could be spent while a final decision is pending, Barbour had argued.

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