Supes choke on tobacco settlement initiative

The Board of Supervisors, already fretting about the estimated $6 million the state is said to be pulling from the county budget, now has to contemplate another $2.4 million hole in the general fund.

The money, an estimate of the county’s share of the 1998 tobacco master settlement, will still flow into county coffers, but if a certain group gets its way the board will have no say on how it’s spent.

The public interest group F.A.I.R. (Full Allocation of Intended Revenues), which is funded partly by the American Cancer Society, was successful in collecting enough signatures to force a ballot initiative that, if approved by voters, would ensure that most of the county’s tobacco settlement money is spent on bolstering public health programs.

The supervisors obviously feel differently. At their regular meeting June 11, CAO Paul McIntosh called the ballot initiative “a baldfaced grab for cash by entities from outside Butte County.

“I’m really sorry it’s come to this,” he said. “I think we need to resist this vigorously.”

In a later interview, McIntosh clarified the county’s position.

“The purpose of the settlement was to reimburse the states and counties for expenses incurred in health care because of tobacco use, and those costs were incurred at the expense of other necessary programs,” he said. “There is nothing in the master settlement agreement that says the money should be spent on health care.”

Under the F.A.I.R. plan, the money would be allocated thusly:

· 10 percent to Butte County Department of Public Health

· 20 percent for grants to pay for tobacco use prevention projects

· 20 percent to fund emergency room visits for non-paying patients

· 10 percent for child immunizations

· 5 percent for senior and disabled care

· 10 percent to hospitals providing charity care

· 20 percent for safety programs, which could include sheriff’s and fire services

· 5 percent for county administration costs

The board obviously wants to retain control over the money, which has helped over the last few years to prop up the budget and keep the county in the black. But the success of the initiative forced the board to accept one of three options: accept F.A.I.R.'s plan outright, send the plan to the voters for approval, or order a report detailing the potential cost to the county.

The board chose the last option, even though it is little more than a stalling tactic and won’t buy much more than a week’s time. In that period, the board will likely form a plan to draw up an initiative of its own to place beside the F.A.I.R. initiative on November’s statewide ballot.