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Published: Thursday, 5/1/2008

Ohio House passes bill to raid state's anti-tobacco fund

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - When Ohio created a separate foundation to fund its fight against tobacco in 2000, there were lawmakers who predicted the General Assembly wouldn't be able to keep its hands off the money.

It took eight years, but yesterday the House overwhelmingly approved a bill that would, for all intents and purposes, spend the last of Ohio's multibillion-dollar share of the national settlement with major tobacco companies.

The bill, expected to pass the Senate next week, will kill the Ohio Tobacco Prevention Foundation. The agency angered Gov. Ted Strickland and the Republican-controlled General Assembly when it opted to sue the state rather than acquiesce to their raid of 85 percent of its bank account to help pay for a bipartisan $1.57 billion economic stimulus package.

A series of witnesses yesterday cited statistic after statistic on tobacco use in an attempt to convince the House Finance and Appropriations Committee that it was being shortsighted in sending the bill to the floor. But a Columbus social worker angrily took a different tack, presenting herself as the face of roughly 400 people whose jobs are dependent on grants issued by the foundation, jobs that she said likely would be lost in the name of job creation.

"Our programs have been more than effective, and yet we are being forced to end," said Gretchen Clark Hammond, an employee of Amethyst, Inc., an addiction treatment organization. "For years we have suffered through shortsighted decisions that were supposed to 'help' the economy, eight years of [settlement] payments directed to 'help the economy,'•" she said. "Clearly, these strategies are not working, because here we are yet again trying to help the economy."

As of yesterday the foundation's endowment held $271 million. The original plan was for the endowment to hold in excess of $1 billion so that the foundation's anti-smoking marketing campaign and treatment programs could operate in perpetuity on investment earnings.

But lawmakers have repeatedly redirected settlement checks to other purposes, and now have proposed taking $230 million.

"We're trying to do the greatest good for the greatest number of Ohioans," said Rep. Jay Hottinger (R., Newark), the bill's sponsor.

Some lawmakers made it clear that they resented the foundation's attempt to give $190 million to a Washington-based, nonprofit agency with a similar anti-tobacco mission. A Franklin County Common Pleas Court judge issued a temporary restraining order to protect the money from either side until after he holds a hearing next Thursday.

"Hopefully, this body will recognize that punishment of a renegade state agency should take a back seat to doing what is in the best interest of the citizens of this great state," said Mike Renner, the foundation's executive director.

The bill is designed to weaken the crux of the foundation's case. It ends the foundation as an independent agency, rolling its functions and the roughly $40 million remaining in its coffers into the state Department of Health.

The health department would use the remaining $40 million to meet the foundation's contractual obligations through June 30. After that, the department has the option of using the remaining $20 million to $25 million to continue anti-tobacco programs like those operated by the foundation.

But Mr. Renner noted that, assuming the department invests the money to operate off of investment earnings, the state would spend just $1 million to $2 million a year on tobacco prevention. The foundation currently spends in excess of $40 million a year.

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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