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  Md. Tussles Over Tobacco Settlement

By Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 28, 1999; Page C01

Maryland lawmakers, tobacco growers and health care advocates are among the multitude of interests salivating over the $4 billion the state will begin receiving this year from the national tobacco lawsuit settlement.

The first of 25 annual installments – a $54 million payment – is expected later this year. Maryland's 1,200 tobacco growers, envious of Virginia's recent decision to spend half of its money on tobacco farmers, want 5 percent of the first installment. The University of Maryland's Greenbaum Cancer Center wants $10 million a year.

House Minority Whip Del. Robert L. Flanagan (R-Howard) said Maryland ought to pay down state debt so "our children won't be burdened." And the legislative Black Caucus argued that Prince George's County and Baltimore should receive a larger share than other jurisdictions because more of their residents die from smoking-related illnesses.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) said his top priorities are health care, smoking prevention and cessation programs, and money to help tobacco farmers make a transition to other crops. He pegged those costs at roughly $10 million and thinks the rest should go to research facilities and education programs, including those focusing on early childhood development.

Glendening said those programs should be new so that they are easily identified as being funded with the tobacco money. But he is resisting legislative attempts to require multi-year allotments, suggesting that those decisions be made annually instead.

"The money should go through the regular appropriation process," Glendening said in an interview this week.

The House of Delegates gave preliminary approval yesterday to a measure requiring that at least half the money go to, among other things, smoking cessation, enforcement of tobacco laws, alternative crops, rural health care and drug treatment and prevention.

The squabble in Maryland is part of a debate in which more than 200 bills have been introduced in state legislatures nationwide to disperse the $200 billion settlement to repay states for tobacco-related Medicaid payments. There are proposals to improve health care, stop smoking, reduce class sizes and build prisons and schools.

"A lot of state legislators are viewing this money as if a Brinks truck backed up to the capitol, dropped off the money and sped off," said Paul G. Billings, deputy director of government relations for the American Lung Association, which has tracked how states are spending the money.

"They are using this money to fund a lot of programs – in some cases good programs – that have not been funded in the past. This is freer, new money."

Last month, Virginia became the first state to establish a distribution formula, devoting half of its $4 billion share to the state's tobacco farmers and 10 percent to programs to discourage youth smoking. The District has not decided what to do with its $1.2 billion take. As the Maryland legislature moves toward adjournment April 12, advocates for various interest groups are pressing their causes.

"The settlement was made as a way of compensating states for their costs in treating Medicaid patients who suffer from cancer and other tobacco-related health problems," Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell (D-Baltimore County) testified during a recent hearing. "Nothing could be more appropriate than to spend tobacco dollars to make Maryland the nation's premier cancer research and treatment center."

Smoke Free Maryland, a coalition of health care groups, has asked lawmakers to create the "Maryland Tobacco Control Foundation," which would be made up of private and public members and funded with settlement money. The group has requested that at least $50 million per year go toward smoking prevention programs.

And legislators from tobacco-growing areas are fighting to make sure they aren't left out. Glendening said he favors spending on all those areas, but he is urging the legislature not to encumber the money with mandates for certain projects.

Legislators from farming areas contend that the governor's position is just one more slight to an industry that has felt scorned of late.

"We're looking for money to be able to ease the transition to alternative crops," said Del. Van T. Mitchell (D-Charles), who sponsored legislation seeking a 5 percent allotment for the state's remaining tobacco farmers in Southern Maryland.

Mitchell and others are feeling particularly put out because the divvying up of settlement money comes as Glendening is pressing state legislators to impose a $1-per-pack increase on cigarettes, which would be the highest such tax in the nation. The House of Delegates, by a 74-61 margin, approved the tax on Friday. Now the measure moves to the Senate, where passage is not assured.

The tax hike was billed as a deterrent to teenage smoking, but representatives of farming families saw it as a way to raise money to fund popular building projects around the state. Del. John F. Wood Jr. (D-St. Mary's) pleaded with his colleagues not to further harm the state's tobacco farmers. "Please don't drive a tobacco spear through our farmers' hearts," Wood said.

But for many lawmakers, personal tragedies fresh in their minds, there is little sympathy for tobacco interests. They see the settlement money and the proposed tax increase as revenge to cigarette makers for hiding evidence of tobacco's addictive and harmful properties.

Del. Barbara Frush (D-Prince George's) said the bulk of the money ought to go to help prevent Marylanders from becoming addicted to tobacco. If that causes a little pain to the tobacco companies, it is all right by her.

"It's payback to an industry that has come after our children, lied to us and addicted our babies," Frush said. "They're legal drug dealers. I'd be perfectly happy if there was no tobacco in the state of Maryland."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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