Miss. high court to speed up ruling on anti-tobacco money

Published 4:29 pm Friday, October 6, 2006

The Mississippi Supreme Court agreed Thursday to speed up its consideration of the legality of $20 million in annual payments to The Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi, a private, nonprofit anti-tobacco group.

Gov. Haley Barbour and others also had asked the Supreme Court to stop the Partnership from spending money until the appeal is decided. But, Thursday’s order did not address that request.

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.

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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 — 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.

Last month, Bradley 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 breaks 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, the appeal says.

Barbour contends in court documents that as of May 31, 2005, the Partnership had $31 million. But Partnership spokeswoman Sharon Garrison has said the Partnership does not have that much money now.

Garrison 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.

In Thursday’s order, the Supreme Court set dates for filing documents in the appeal and said extensions would not be granted without a showing of extraordinary circumstances.