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Miss. Supreme Court says diverting tobacco money to Partnership unconstitutional, Governor Says he Pursued the Right Course

by Keith Burton - GCN  6/14/07

The Mississippi Supreme Court ended a seething controversy over the handling of millions of dollars of tobacco funds given to the state. The court ruled 6-1 that the annual diversion of $20 million of tobacco settlement funds to a smoking cessation program was unconstitutional. The Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi, which went out of business last month when money dried up, had appealed to the court after Governor Haley Barbour had obtained a court order in 2006 which said only the state legislature could appropriate money.

In a statement released to GCN, it is clear that Governor Barbour feels vindicated in going after the Partnership for a Health Mississippi to obtain the funds for the state.

"The Supreme Court's near-unanimous decision in the Partnership case emphatically confirms what has always been obvious, only the Mississippi Legislature can appropriate the state's money. A local judge and the Attorney General have no power to give taxpayer money to a private charity.

"It's a shame it look a long, drawn-out lawsuit to stop this illegal and unconstitutional diversion of taxpayer money," said Barbour.

Gov. Haley Barbour, along with the Medicaid program and the Health Care Trust Fund had argued the money was illegally diverted to the Partnership. The court in its ruling agreed.

Mississippi in 1997 settled its lawsuit against the tobacco industry, which was filed to recover public costs of treating sick smokers. The Partnership was created by former Attorney General Mike Moore as a non profit organization to handle the receipt of the money from the tobacco lawsuit. Mississippi is collecting about $4 billion over 25 years in its tobacco lawsuit settlement, with most of the money going to the Health Care Trust Fund, which was established by the Legislature and pays for a variety of programs.

The lawsuit against the tobacco companies was spearheaded by then Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore, who later went on to become the director of the Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi. While the partnership was coordinating some anti tobacco programs, behind the scenes it was being criticized for becoming a funding source for democratic political candidates.

Governor Barbour determined that the Partnership was receiving money that technically should be going into the state treasury and obtained a court order in 2006 that stopped the money from going to the Partnership.

According to a Associated Press news report, "The $20 million given annually to the Partnership has never been appropriated," Justice George E. Carlson Jr. wrote for the majority. "The tobacco installment payments are monies that unquestionably belong to the state of Mississippi, and all of these payments, including the annual payments which were diverted to the Partnership, should have been placed in the Health Care Trust Fund until properly appropriated by the Legislature."

In the statement on the case by Justice Carlson, as the diversion of the money to the Partnership had been determined illegal dating back to Dec. 22, 2000, the Partnership must repay any remaining money. There remains now the question of whether the Partnership will have to repay money it has spent already.

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