Scramble for tobacco lawsuit money could delay legislators' decision


With Maryland due to receive $4 billion from the tobacco industry over the next quarter-century, legislators, hospitals and a host of special interests are scrambling for a piece of the money.

Lawmakers and interest groups have pressed Gov. Parris N. Glendening to use tobacco industry proceeds to pay for dozens of projects costing hundreds of millions of dollars, far exceeding the $150 million the state is supposed to divvy up this year.

The jockeying -- which is breaking down in part along racial, geographic and partisan lines -- has grown so intense that legislative leaders are warning that the General Assembly might have to "park" much of the tobacco money for a year to build a consensus on its use.

"It's getting ugly. Very ugly," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "Right now, some of the potential uses to me are not closely connected to either the health issue or a wise use of the money."

The claims come from far and wide.

Sen. Leo E. Green, a Prince George's Democrat, wants $10 million to put health aides in schools. Coppin State College wants $2.5 million to educate, train and care for ex-convicts. Western Maryland lawmakers want $400,000 for a "well-mobile" to cruise their region. And Sen. George W. Della Jr., a Baltimore Democrat, wants some of the tobacco funds to pay for acupuncture and other nontraditional anti-smoking treatments.

The factions are diverse.

Black legislators want $30 million for black institutions and communities in the Baltimore area. Prince George's County, seeing that much of the money could end up in Baltimore, also wants $30 million.

Sinai Hospital is seeking $6.2 million. Republicans want to plow the money into Medicaid to improve nursing home care, pointing out that the tobacco money was designed to reimburse the state for its Medicaid expenses.

Last week, a Maryland business made a pitch to legislators for $15 million over three years to help it bring laboratory research findings to the marketplace.

"I get five or six different calls a day from groups wanting to sit down and talk about getting some of the tobacco money," said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat who heads the Senate capital budget subcommittee.

The rush for tobacco money is part of a wider effort by legislators and others to win a piece of the state's budget surplus, which totals more than $1 billion.

The tobacco fund gives lawmakers an attractive new pot of money to aim for and has prompted aggressive lobbying.

"The requests keep coming in," said Frederick W. Puddester, the governor's budget secretary. "For many of those requests, the hook is tobacco."

Miller said he has been particularly upset by calls for directing money to various parts of the state and to historically black institutions.

"We're going to award tobacco money based on race now?" Miller asked rhetorically. "I think it's most unfortunate."

Black legislators respond that they have the strongest of justifications for tobacco dollars: Cigarette-makers have targeted their communities, and the result has been higher incidences of disease and death blamed on smoking.

"Black institutions have a history of dealing with our people directly," said Democratic Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, head of the Baltimore Senate delegation.

Many at the State House say the problem is that so many people make good arguments for receiving tobacco dollars but there's only so much to go around.

Eric Gally, a lobbyist for the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association, said some advocates are getting nervous that the in-fighting might be getting out of hand.

"At this point, there's a real worry that there's so many ideas out there, and so much regionalism going on, and so much pushing and pulling that they may not be able to reach agreement and may not do anything this year," Gally said.

Miller and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. outlined that situation last week.

They argue that with more than $4 billion in payments from cigarette makers expected over 25 years, the state should ensure that it spends the money wisely.

"I'm becoming more and more enamored of moving forward on what we can agree upon but escrowing the rest of the money for a year if the contentiousness does not abate," Miller said.

Taylor said the Assembly should move forward this year if lawmakers avoid excessive "parochial and political spending."

Glendening is the key to the debate because only the governor, not the legislature, can add projects to the state budget.

The governor has no interest in waiting a year to begin spending the tobacco money.

"He'd like to see it done this year," said Michelle Byrnie, a spokeswoman for the governor.

Some ranking legislators say it will be all but impossible to hold the money back when so many are clamoring to spend it.

"I just think it's our responsibility as legislators to make the decisions to allocate these funds," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "That shouldn't be that difficult."

Spending decisions fall to the House and Senate budget committees, but legislators who sit on other panels are angling to have a say in the tobacco-funds issue.

"We've listened to these issues at length over the last eight or 10 years," said Democratic Del. Michael E. Busch of Anne Arundel County, chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee. "There needs to be input from the health committees."

Eastern Shore Democratic Del. Ron Guns is preparing a bill that would require the governor to draft a plan for spending the tobacco money in the years ahead and force the budget committee to consult with other committees.

"It reflects the concern that we have that the process has been altered to where very few people know [what's going on]," said Guns, chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee.

It wasn't supposed to end up this way.

Less than two years ago, the cigarette-makers settled lawsuits with Maryland and 45 other states seeking to recoup Medicaid dollars spent on treating smokers who are ailing. At the time, politicians in Maryland and nationwide spoke of spending much of the money on programs to combat tobacco use, from anti-smoking campaigns to smoking-cessation programs to health initiatives.

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