COLUMBUS - Ohio lawmakers yesterday sought to resolve the feud over the state's tobacco money once and for all by proposing the elimination of the independent agency they created eight years ago to run anti-smoking programs.
A bill is expected to be rushed to a vote today in the House to eliminate the Ohio Tobacco Prevention Foundation and its board and to roll its functions into the Department of Health directly under the governor's control.
"Anything that government has the ability to establish, it has the ability to abolish," Rep. Jay Hottinger (R., Newark) said. "In a perfect world, this wouldn't be necessary, but we have to make choices."
The move could end the foundation's legal contention that the state has no right to meddle with its affairs or bank account because, since its creation, it is separate from the rest of government.
The foundation, however, owes its existence to an act of the legislature in 2000 when it first decided how to divvy up hundreds of millions expected each year from the state's ongoing settlement with major tobacco companies.
The foundation is locked in a battle with Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland and the Republican-controlled General Assembly over $230 million that had been turned over to the foundation to pay for the ongoing "stand" anti-smoking program targeting youths, its OhioQuits hot line, and other programs.
The governor and lawmakers want to use those funds to help pay for a $1.57 billion jobs package they hope will jump-start Ohio's stagnating economy.
The foundation responded by voting to immediately transfer $190 million into the coffers of a Washington-based nonprofit agency to put it beyond the state's reach.
A Franklin County Common Pleas Court judge recently called a timeout, issuing a temporary restraining order to prevent either side from spending the money. That order created instant cash flow problems for the foundation and its grant recipients.
A hearing is scheduled next week to decide whether the state has the authority to take back money already given to an independent agency. The American Legacy Foundation, an anti-smoking organization, has sought to intervene, contending it has a binding contract with the foundation for the funds.
Sen. Dale Miller (D., Cleveland), a nonvoting member of the foundation's board, said he believes there is a peaceful solution short of the foundation's death.
"The tobacco foundation's work has clearly reduced smoking rates in Ohio, and that not only makes us healthier, but it saves money for family budgets and the state's budget," he said. "All of that's good. I think we should find a way to enable them to continue their work."
Anti-tobacco activists have argued that the state should raise taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products rather than raid the tobacco foundation. They cited their own poll yesterday suggesting voters would support such a move.
The bill would give the remaining $40 million in the foundation's coffers to the Department of Health to fulfill the foundation's current contractual obligations. After that, the department would decide whether to use what remains to continue the foundation's anti-smoking efforts.
Sen. Bill Seitz (R., Cincinnati), author of a similar Senate bill, said the action is a response to a feeling among some that the foundation has become "a rogue agency."
"It's not the remedy I would have proposed," he said as he stood outside a Statehouse entrance smoking a cigarette. "I would have said we should vote to eliminate the statewide smoking ban. That's the nuclear option."
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