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Published: Thursday, 4/10/2008

Ohio tobacco money tug of war lands in court

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - The group behind Ohio's anti-smoking campaign sued Ohio Treasurer Richard Cordray yesterday to stop him from complying with a "hastily drafted, 11th hour" law to confiscate $230 million of the group's funds.

The Ohio Tobacco Prevention Foundation asked Franklin County Common Pleas Court to issue a temporary restraining order. The organization argues that the funds are outside the reach of the Democratic governor and Republican-controlled General Assembly.

A hearing is set for 10 a.m. today.

The suit is the latest shot fired in the war over Ohio's tobacco prevention dollars, which came from the state's multibillion-dollar settlement with major cigarette manufacturers such as Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds.

"These funds were explicitly placed outside of the state treasury for the sole purpose of reducing tobacco use by Ohioans,'' the lawsuit said. "If the treasurer is allowed to take any steps toward liquidation, irreparable harm would run not only to the plaintiff - the board that administers the Endowment Fund - but also to the citizens of Ohio who benefit from the foundation's public health efforts.''

The foundation oversees the marketing campaign targeting Ohio youth and the OhioQuits hot line, among other programs. The $40 million that would be left in the trust represents less than one year's operating budget.

Gov. Ted Strickland and legislative leaders stunned the foundation last week when they announced their plan to take $230 million from the foundation's trust to help fuel a $1.57 billion economic stimulus package pushing public-works projects, research, and college internships.

The foundation responded with a surprise of its own two days later when it voted to transfer $190 million of the $270 million in its trust to nonprofit organizations outside the state's reach, preserving them for continued anti-tobacco programs.

At lightning speed by legislative standards, lawmakers Tuesday amended an unrelated bill to immediately confiscate the money. The governor promptly signed it.

While Mr. Cordray indicated he intended to comply, it was unclear yesterday whether the lengthy process of liquidating $230 million of investments into cash had been completed.

"The governor is confident that the law he signed [Tuesday] is valid,'' Strickland spokesman Keith Dailey said. "State government has the authority to appropriate state funds. He and the legislature considered yesterday's action to be the final action to bring clarity to the issue. The foundation is intent on perpetuating the issue in the courts."

Dr. David Grossman, Toledo-Lucas County health commissioner, has been watching the fight from afar.

"The sad thing is we're both fighting for good causes," he said, noting that he likes the governor's job-creation package. But he disagreed with suggestions that the statewide ban on indoor public smoking approved by voters in 2006 has made the foundation's efforts unnecessary.

"The argument should be the other way around," he said. "We wouldn't need the ban if people quit smoking. Kids still smoke, and they become adult smokers."

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com,

or 614-221-0496.



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