Way back in his days as Wisconsin's attorney general, Gov. Jim Doyle was part of a landmark case that would have brought $5.9 billion into the state. Through the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, Wisconsin had the opportunity to put a massive amount of money to use for the betterment of public health.
But unfortunately, former Gov. Scott McCallum, who took the helm after Tommy Thompson left for Washington to run the Department of Health and Family Services in 2000, sold the settlement money to investors for a one-time nominal payment of $1.6 billion to help mend the state budget. McCallum, with approval from the state Legislature for the sale, dedicated the subsequent installments to cover payments on the bonds as part of the deal with the investors.
At the time, Doyle staunchly opposed the measure, but he was in no position to have any power over the way the settlement was used. As one of 45 other state attorneys general, then-AG Doyle helped broker the tobacco settlement to regain state funds lost due to tobacco-related illness.
Now that he's commencing his second term, Doyle has plans to make good on McCallum's misstep by refinancing the bonds and using the money for what it was originally intended.
Doyle described the plan — which will generate $30 million in interest annually — in an interview with The Associated Press last week and during his State of the State address last night. The refinancing will allow the state to move $600 million into a separate fund, from which the state can skim interest to fund anti-smoking initiatives.
Due to opposition from the Legislature, it is unlikely that other plans Doyle has to curb smoking in the state and bolster funds to pay for smoking-related health care — like a proposed cigarette tax increase of $1.25 and a statewide smoking ban — will see the light of day while he is in office.
However, his initiative to recover the money lost more than six years ago does not require approval by the Legislature, and his efforts to improve the general health of people in the state should be lauded by lawmakers and residents regardless of their political beliefs.
But Doyle does need a nod from legislators in order to channel the money into the anti-smoking measures, and they should comply with his requests.
We must live up to our state motto and pave the way to promoting better public health; if the money is used as Doyle intends, Wisconsin will better meet standards set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for state funds dedicated to anti-smoking programs.
According to the CDC website, Wisconsin ranks in the middle of the pack nationally for the money it spends on anti-smoking campaigns. The CDC also reported that since the 1950s, the use of tobacco has been steadily declining. But even though this is a promising sign, it will indeed require vast amounts of additional cash to get people to quit and prevent future generations from lighting up in the first place.
In his State of the State speech, Doyle pledged to be a better steward for the health of children and adults in the state, partly via his anti-tobacco efforts and his plans to expand health care coverage, and everyone should join him in this effort.
Just like education, funds that are used to improve people's health are an unequivocal investment in the future welfare of the state of Wisconsin as a whole.
Carolyn Smith ([email protected]) is a continuing student and chair of the Badger Herald Editorial Board.