Hungry eyes on tobacco fund

February 27, 2000|By Barry Rascovar

MONEY is proving the root of much mischief in the legislative hallways of Annapolis.

It has set off a feeding frenzy that threatens to turn the governor's $100 million anti-cancer, anti-smoking program into a greedy grab bag of political pork.

What lawmakers see is a huge pot of cash easily diverted to their favored interests.

Members of the Black Legislative Caucus have been the most vocal in this pursuit, but they are hardly alone. It got so bad the presiding officers threatened to impound all the money flowing to the state from the national tobacco settlement for a year to stop this unseemly spectacle.

What started as a well-meaning crusade against cancer and smoking now looks like a political circus.

It came off the tracks when Gov. Parris N. Glendening made a couple of unfortunate miscalculations.

In deciding how to divide this lucre, the governor wisely set aside $50 million a year for cancer research, $30 million for smoking prevention, $10 million for combating other addictions and roughly $10 million to help tobacco farmers in Southern Maryland convert to other crops.

But within this carefully planned approach, the governor created room for mischief.

For instance, he set aside $10 million of the cancer research money for unspecified organizations in the Washington suburbs. That was interpreted by Washington-area pols, especially from Prince George's County, as a go-ahead to divvy up this cash for their own causes.

It also triggered a "get all you can" mentality. Legislators began referring to the $30 million earmarked for the state's two research medical centers at University of Maryland's downtown campus and at Johns Hopkins as aid to Baltimore, which they said required an equal set-aside for the Washington region.

Every community hospital with a political antenna pressed local lawmakers for a chunk of the tobacco settlement money.

And black lawmakers came up with the creative notion that historically black colleges should get special compensation from the tobacco settlement because blacks were targeted in recent decades by cigarette manufacturers.

Black lawmakers also have been trying to seize control of $10 million a year the governor designated for an anti-smoking campaign in black communities, as well as the $10 million targeted for a media marketing blitz and $20 million for other anti-smoking programs.

The governor then compounded matters by playing his own games with another portion of the tobacco settlement fund he wants spent on education.

For instance, last week he proposed tobacco-settlement funds be used for a teacher pay raise. That meant shifting a portion of the $15 million he had earlier promised to Johns Hopkins to another account. (Hopkins could still get its full $15 million, but would have to come begging to Annapolis for the cash every year.)

That, too, set off political signals that the settlement funds could be turned into a veritable Christmas tree of special-interest goodies.

Pity the poor legislators assigned the unenviable task of finding a way out of this political thicket, Sen. Christopher Van Hollen of Montgomery County and Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg of Baltimore. Mr. Van Hollen, in particular, faces a deadline this week of bringing a plan to the influential leader of his budget panel, Sen. Barbara Hoffman of Baltimore, so the full committee can vote on it.

It won't be easy. The governor is meeting with groups, imploring them not to destroy a sensible, 10-year attack on cancer and smoking. Budget leaders in the General Assembly will play pivotal roles in keeping members focused on the overriding objective of fighting cancer and its causes.

Mr. Glendening won deserved praise for his anti-smoking, anti-cancer proposal. While Virginia's governor is throwing his state's tobacco settlement money into roads, Mr. Glendening came up with a tightly targeted approach that puts this "blood money" to use solving the deadly addictions and diseases cigarette manufacturers helped generate.

Will the governor's worthy objective survive the challenge of raw politics? Will common sense win out over political greed? We could begin to find out this week, as Maryland's Tobacco Wars heat up.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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