Attorney General: Tobacco Trust Funds Off Limits To Lawmakers

Friday, September 21st 2007, 7:02 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The state Legislature has no constitutional authority to spend earnings from the Oklahoma Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust Fund or to tell the fund's board how to spend the money, according to an opinion by Attorney General Drew Edmondson's office.

The opinion, rendered by Edmondson's office on Thursday, says a constitutional amendment approved by voters in November 2000 that created the trust fund gives the fund's board of directors sole power to spend fund money and that legislation to give that power to lawmakers would be inconsistent with the state Constitution.

``Under the unambiguous terms of the Constitution, it is the responsibility of the board of directors rather than the Legislature to determine the expenditures to be made from the trust fund earnings,'' the opinion states.

The endowment was established after the 1998 tobacco settlement agreement in which big tobacco companies agreed to return money to states to help pay health expenses associated with smoking.

Earnings from the endowment are dedicated to tobacco use prevention and cessation programs, said Tracey Strader, executive director of the endowment trust.

``All of the earnings are directed toward reducing our state's leading preventable cause of death,'' Strader said.

The attorney general's opinion was requested in July by members of the trust fund's board after the Legislature introduced a proposal last spring containing language that would have allocated funds from the endowment for other purposes, Strader said.

The legislation, known as the All Kids Act, was eventually passed without the trust fund language, Strader said.

Strader said the board was pleased that the attorney general's opinion affirmed the intent of the tobacco trust fund referendum.

``It is what the people voted for,'' she said.

Among other things, the opinion states that legislation directing expenditures from the fund, even if they involve tobacco prevention and cessation, would be unconstitutional.

Since its creation, the tobacco endowment fund has received $374 million from big tobacco companies. The fund earned $10.3 million in interest and dividend earnings this year for tobacco prevention and cessation programs, Strader said.

The All Kids Act was signed into law by Governor Brad Henry in June. It increased Medicaid eligibility for children from 185% of the federal poverty level to 300%.

A total of 415,000 children had been enrolled in the program and the change would provide coverage for as many as 42,000 additional children, according to projections from the governor's office.