Constitutional Amendment Is No Smoke Screen

July 19, 2002
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It is indeed rare that the Grand Rapids Business Journal determines it must reiterate a position held on this page, but the sheer enormity of tobacco settlement funds to the State of Michigan has by itself created a debacle of finger pointing and nasty comment, as various special interest groups attempt to get or keep the money in their pockets.

This week Grand Rapids Business Journal also is publishing a letter to the editor signed by Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce President John Brown (below), countering the July 15, 2002, editorial by the Business Journal.

The Citizens for a Healthy Michigan has gathered what appears to be enough signatures to place a ballot issue before voters in November, a constitutional amendment to use 90 percent of the remaining $8 billion in tobacco settlement funds (over the next 20 years) for smoking cessation programs targeted to children, health care for the thousands of Michigan residents with smoking-related illnesses, a senior citizen prescription drug fund and for research related to cancer and emphysema. That is a fact. It also is a fact that the coalition has provided accountability and oversight of these funds. The amendment requires that the State Auditor General conduct an annual accountability report to ensure the funds are properly spent — on health care.

The issue is of very high priority to the Michigan business community, because it encompasses two of the most significant issues facing business: health care benefit provision and education spending. Unfortunately, it was the legislature (whom detractors would have keep the money in the general fund) that created the greed factor by using tobacco money for education.The settlement funds have been used by the legislature to fund college scholarships for Michigan students who score well on the state MEAP test. This was in addition to the 8 percent state funding increases the legislature provided colleges and universities, and on top of significant increases in tuition this year alone. The innovative scholarship program should absolutely continue to be funded by the state general fund.

And the tobacco money should absolutely be used to pay for the issues related to the disease and death of thousands of Michigan citizens, by which some of those costs are kept from being spread among businesses already on the verge of eliminating health care benefits because of the enormous cost increases over the past five consecutive years (and with no near-term sign of abatement anywhere in the country). Smoking deaths in Michigan outnumber all deaths from alcohol, AIDS, car crashes, illegal drugs, murders and suicide combined, every year.

Michigan has one of the worst records in the nation for smoking-related disease and number of smokers — to whom tobacco companies apologized for using addictive and deadly chemicals in the products. Tobacco companies were forced to send them the money. The Big Three automakers have already indicated they will not be able to afford the health care retirement benefits for this generation of baby boomers, well on its way to the twilight years. West Michigan businesses have indicated in surveys that health care is the No. 1 issue they believe will affect their profitability and the region’s economy. The number of uninsured workers has steadily increased, not decreased.

No mechanism to “protect” the tobacco money for health care or education exists within the state legislature. The governor’s seat, 52 House seats and 27 Senate seats are to be filled this November, seats that remain term-limited over these next 20 years.

While we do not support amending the constitution as the right solution, it is a better option than letting the lobbyists and special interests dictate the use of the money. (If there were a better mechanism it would have the support of the Business Journal.) The only means of protecting tobacco settlement money for health care is that offered by the Coalition for a Healthy Michigan. The 14,000 physicians of the Michigan State Medical Society, Crain’s Detroit Business, the Lansing State Journal, the State News, Macomb Daily, Detroit Free Press and other editorial writers across Michigan, also have given support for the proposal.

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