Supes jockey for control of tobacco settlement money

Claiming it was acting in the “spirit of cooperation,” the Board of Supervisors formed a commission to spend Butte County’s hotly contested $2.5 million tobacco settlement allowance from the state.

It was a surprise move, an attempt by the county to maintain at least partial control of the windfall, which will be given to all counties annually for the next 25 years. That control is important to the county, which has made no secret of its intention to use at least part of the tobacco settlement money to backfill a county budget that’s practically shrinking by the minute, due to the state’s projected budgetary shortfall.

That intention infuriated tobacco-education workers in Butte County, who point out that the money coming to the county is supposed to be spent on tobacco education and anti-smoking campaigns. The workers organized an initiative campaign, qualifying the issue for the November ballot. Measure G, if passed, would earmark the money strictly for anti-tobacco efforts.

But Tuesday, the board agreed that at least some of the money should be spent on anti-tobacco efforts, but said that unless they have at least some of the money, public safety in Butte County will suffer.

“I think taking this money and giving it to a hospital, which already spends a good amount on anti-tobacco efforts, and then having to remove an engine from the streets is ludicrous,” said Butte County Fire Chief Bill Sager. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

Tobacco education workers were suspicious, to say the least, of the board’s motivations.

“I’m not an angry person, but this definitely got my attention,” said American Lung Association Executive Director Patty Davis.

American Lung Association representative James Fletcher even went so far as to compare the board’s proposal to the advertising tactics of Big Tobacco, an assertion that didn’t go over well with 2nd District Supervisor Jane Dolan.

“I never heard of a tobacco company that invited the input of [tobacco educators] to help spend the money,” she said. “To compare us with them is just wrong.”

In the end, the board voted 4-1 to form a nine-member commission to decide how the tobacco money will be spent. The commission will be made up of two supervisors, along with representatives from the American Heart and Lung associations, the American Cancer Society, the county Auditor’s Office, and an unaffiliated private citizen.

While the new commission will begin working "almost immediately," voters will still have a chance to vote on Measure G in November. If it passes, the commission will be disbanded and all the tobacco settlement money given to anti-tobacco education groups.