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Lawmakers call for appropriate use of tobacco settlement funds
ST. PAUL – Today marks the tenth anniversary of a landmark tobacco settlement that provides hundreds of millions in state revenue every year. These funds were originally dedicated to a state endowment for health care purposes, public health efforts, medical education initiatives, and anti-smoking programs for young Minnesotans. Contrary to its original purpose, the fund was raided in 2003 to balance a budget deficit and has been directed solely to the general fund ever since. Two lawmakers are working to change that, by rededicating the tobacco settlement funds for its originally intended purpose.
"A significant portion of these tobacco settlement funds were always meant to improve public health and that isn't happening anymore," said Rep. Erin Murphy (DFL – St. Paul). "At a time when Minnesotans need comprehensive health care reform, the number one priority for these funds absolutely should be to improve the health and well-being of Minnesotans."
Legislation offered by Rep. Kim Norton (DFL – Rochester) and Rep. Erin Murphy (DFL – St. Paul) would create a "Public Health Improvement Account," directing all tobacco settlement funds to be spent on public health. Prior to 2003, various public health initiatives and programs were funded through two endowment funds and one account from the annual tobacco settlement funds, including the Tobacco Use Prevention and Local Public Health Endowment, Medical Education Endowment, and the Academic Health Center Account. Since 2003 every penny of those funds have been spent in the general fund for everything from education to public safety to the environment. Rep. Kim Norton said that needs to change.
"The tobacco settlement in1998 gave our state a unique opportunity to direct invaluable resources into effective public health efforts for the benefit of Minnesotans," said Rep. Norton. "It's time to reestablish Minnesota's commitment to that public health initiative by staying true to the intended purpose of these important funds."
Murphy drew parallels from the raiding of the tobacco settlement funds and the Governor's use of the Health Care Access fund. Along with the tobacco settlement funds, the Governor raided the Health Care Access fund to balance the budget in 2003. In his original budget proposal this year, he also proposed taking $250 million from the Health Care Access Fund again to balance the budget. He has since backed off that proposal after DFL legislators strongly rejected using the health care access fund for anything other than health care.
"Just as we should use the health care access fund for health care, we should use the tobacco settlement funds for improving public health, " said Murphy. "And because our Governor has routinely looked to these pots of money first to balance the budget, we need to pass legislation that ensures these resources will be directed to its proper place."
Rep. Kim Norton (DFL – Rochester) said the uncertainty of the state budget from year to year is another reason the state should protect the tobacco funds.
"The state plays a central role in promoting and enhancing public health," said Rep. Norton. "But we can't do that effectively if we keep using essential public health funding to plug holes in a leaky budget. By dedicating this consistent source of funding to its originally intended purpose, Minnesota can dramatically enhance the health and wellbeing of our state, and truly deliver a better quality of life for all Minnesota citizens."
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