Lines drawn over tobacco settlement

Governor defends his plan to support cancer research

`A feeding frenzy'

$4 billion award prompts variety of funding requests

February 26, 2000|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

With the Maryland legislative session at its midpoint, Gov. Parris N. Glendeningtried yesterday to fend off growing efforts in the General Assembly to divvy up the state's multibillion-dollar tobacco settlement.

The governor journeyed to Baltimore yesterday to make it clear that while he is willing to work with legislators in the budget process, he does not want to diverge from his plan to spend the money fighting cancer.

Administration officials say these days the governor is getting two or three requests a day from legislators and community advocates offering new proposals for spending the money. Some want to cut taxes or build roads. Other proposals include spending millions of dollars to put health aides in schools, or to train and care for ex-convicts.

Yesterday, the governor expressed frustration with the number of requests, saying a wide-ranging approach to the spending "will do a lot of things inch-deep, but what we would like to do is put down very deep roots."

"This tobacco money is a way for us to reinvent the way we treat and care for cancer patients," he said at the University of Maryland Medical Center. "I believe if we diffuse that money we'll miss the opportunity to do this."

The governor ostensibly was in town for a demonstration on telemedicine, but his real agenda was delivering a message to those who would chip away at his spending priorities.

Maryland is due an estimated $4 billion of tobacco settlement money over the next 25 years. The governor's plan to spend $1 billion over 10 years sets aside $500 million to fight cancer -- with $150 million of that going each to the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland and the remaining $200 million for community-based programs.

Angling for the money has broken down along political, racial and geographic lines in the General Assembly. The lobbying and jockeying have become so intense that for a while legislative leaders considered putting the money aside until next year.

"We're not doing that. No, no, no," Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said yesterday. "We would have to cut the budget, and I don't think my colleagues want to cut out millions of dollars for smoking-cessations programs."

The governor said delaying the process would cost lives.

"For every year we wait, 24,000 Marylanders will be diagnosed with cancer. Many others will be in the first stages," he said. "For every year we wait, 10,000 others will die."

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said the governor was simply defending his package yesterday.

"I don't think it will fall apart. There'll be adjustments -- that's all anticipated," he said. "I think what he's doing is again emphasizing his position and defending his package, and I understand that. But I don't think it will fall apart."

Del. Michael E. Busch, chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee, said the House of Delegates is close to a consensus on how to deal with the tobacco funds -- a plan he hopes will give the University of Maryland Medical Center a prominent role.

"There is going to be a battle over some of this stuff," Busch acknowledged. "But I think on the House side, we're pretty close to getting a plan."

Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, a Montgomery Republican on the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, criticized the governor's plan for spending the tobacco money as not detailed enough.

"We [need to] make sure that the money we're going to spend to fight cancer can be spent efficiently and effectively, not just dumping money in without a plan. We need a clear plan," he said. "I mean, if we don't spend the money this year, it doesn't evaporate."

And Sen. Leo E. Green, a Prince George's Democrat, said he doesn't think enough money has been targeted for children. Green has proposed spending $10 million for drug and mental health programs for juveniles.

"If we are not treating them," he said, "then we're being penny-wise and pound-foolish.

"Not to knock the governor, but I think some of that money should be parked too if we don't know where it's going. We haven't studied it enough," he said.

Essentially backing the governor's agenda, Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, head of the Baltimore City delegation, said he believes senators are ready to decide on how to spend the money this year.

He is particularly concerned that some of the $200 million for community-based programs be spent in black communities that were historically targeted by the tobacco industry. The governor said he has similar concerns over tobacco companies' past actions in black communities, but he would prefer not to dole the money out in small amounts to dozens of community organizations.

McFadden, who also criticized the wide variety of spending options that have been proposed, said he and other black legislators want millions of dollars spent with such black institutions as Morgan State University, Coppin State College and Bowie State University.

"People have come up with all sorts of uses for this money. They just see it as a pot of money to be used," he said, adding that fighting cancer and reaching out to community institutions must be a priority.

Less than two years ago, cigarette-makers settled lawsuits with Maryland and 45 other states seeking to recoup Medicaid dollars spent on treating ailing smokers. The governor said he was not surprised the tobacco settlement had set off a money scramble in Annapolis that should be restricted to the state's separate budget surplus of more than $1 billion.

"I said it's going to be a billion dollars sitting on the table, and it's going to be a feeding frenzy," he said, adding that legislators should "leave our billion dollars alone and fight over the billion-dollar surplus."

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