Sunday, October 31, 1999

CAPITOL INSIDER


Lawmaker's tobacco interests under scrutiny

BY MICHAEL HAWTHORNE
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A deal on Ohio's share of the national tobacco settlement took a detour last week while state senators haggled behind closed doors over an amendment sought by one of the nation's leading cigarette makers.

        The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Doug White, R-Manchester, would require an anti-smoking foundation funded by tobacco money to conduct annual surveys of cigarette use in grades 6 through 12.

        Sounds reasonable, but health groups contend the intent is to drain money away from efforts to prevent smoking and get people to kick the habit.

        Lobbyists for groups with a stake in the anti-smoking foundation provided a memo prepared by Philip Morris that shows Mr. White's amendment closely resembles legislation prepared by the cigarette maker.

        An earlier version of Mr. White's amendment would have required efforts to combat youth smoking to offer a “positive focus.” Health groups said that would have prevented them from airing TV ads that graphically show what smoking does to the human body.

        The amendment was watered down while the Senate Finance Committee took a break that was supposed to last four minutes. It ended up lasting nearly an hour.

        “I talked with the guys from PM (Philip Morris), but I don't know what all the fuss is about,” said Mr. White, a tobacco farmer whose district includes Clermont County. “I just wanted to establish some accountability with that foundation.”

        After Mr. White voted on legislation earmarking half the $10.1 billion tobacco settlement, he shrugged off suggestions that he might have a conflict of interest.

        As a tobacco farmer, Mr. White could be eligible for aid financed by a $229 million portion of the settlement set aside to help growers develop new crops as tobacco use declines.

        “There are some guys who will get money to raise pickles or popcorn,” he said. “But this doesn't mean anything to me.”

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        Bus loads of schoolchildren weren't there this time, but leaders of the coalition that won court-ordered changes in the way schools are financed were back last week with the same message.

        A morning full of presentations at the historic Ohio Theater had the same theme: The state hasn't fulfilled its obligation to provide a “thorough and efficient” system of schools required by the Ohio Constitution.

        The Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding wants the Ohio Supreme Court to order lawmakers to provide more teachers with better pay, smaller classes, more materials and support staff in up-to-date classrooms.

        “Would we want these opportunities available to our children, grandchildren and other family members?” said William Phillis, the group's executive director. “If so, would also want them available to all school children?”

        Coalition leaders again refused to put a price tag on their proposal, but it appeared to be a more detailed version of a plan they presented two years ago. State leaders at the time dismissed the coalition's plan as politically unrealistic, estimating it would cost taxpayers an extra $5 billion a year.

        The debate heads back to the state's top court Nov. 16, when the justices are to hear oral arguments regarding changes intended to comply with the court's 1997 decision that struck down the school-funding system.

       

        Michael Hawthorne covers state government for The Cincinnati Enquirer. He can be reached at (614) 224-4640.

       



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