Partnership argues it should keep getting money from tobacco settlement

Published 7:15 pm Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Attorneys for the Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi say no party to the state’s tobacco settlement has disputed the way some money was used for the smoking cessation program.

Jim Craig of Jackson, representing the Partnership, told the Mississippi Supreme Court on Monday that even the Legislature said that money from the settlement would go to the state Health Care Trust Fund, except funds designated for other purposes.

Craig said the Partnership — a private, nonprofit group — was “the only thing that was” in place to promote anti-smoking programs.

The Supreme Court is trying to decide whether to uphold a December 2006 order from a Jackson County chancery judge, who said only the Legislature could appropriate money to tobacco cessation programs. The Partnership appealed the order.

Gov. Haley Barbour, the Medicaid program and the Health Care Trust Fund argued the money was illegally diverted to the Partnership.

John Corlew of Jackson, representing both Barbour and the Medicaid program at Monday’s hearing, said the tobacco settlement specified that all money coming from the settlement would be the property of the state of Mississippi. He said only the Legislature can determine how public money can be spent.

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

When the money for the program ran out, then-Attorney General Mike Moore — who filed the tobacco lawsuit — obtained a December 2000 court order from Chancery Judge Jaye Bradley that directed $20 million a year from of Mississippi’s annual settlement payments to the Partnership.

Corlew said the action was “the most blatant diversion of public funds to a private corporation in the history of the state of Mississippi.”

Corlew said the settlement mentioned only a $61.8 million pilot program and nothing after that.

Craig said the Legislature has re-enacted the Health Care Trust Fund law three times and has not sought to end the cessation program. He said the Partnership money does not come from taxes collected by the state and not from fees collected by the state.

“They are not subject to the appropriations process,” Craig said.

The chairman of the Partnership’s board is 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.

Moore said Monday that no one is opposed to the programs pushed by the Partnership. He said the absence of such opposition makes the lawsuit appear more political.

Barbour, a Republican, lobbied for tobacco companies in Washington before winning the governorship in 2003. He filed a lawsuit in 2005 to challenge the legality of Bradley’s 2000 court order that directed $20 million a year to the Partnership.

In overturning her 2000 ruling, Bradley said 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.