COLUMBUS — Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland says the state will appeal a county judge’s decision barring the use of tobacco foundation funds to help balance the budget.
“This judge has in my judgment no right to say how the Legislature and the governor should be expending public tax resources,” Strickland said Tuesday shortly after the decision was released. “He had a legal decision to reach, and I think he interjected himself quite inappropriately in an area that was rightfully the responsibility of the Legislature and the executive.”
Nearly a decade ago, lawmakers appropriated about $235 million in tobacco settlement payments into an endowment fund for use by a statewide foundation to support programs aimed at curbing tobacco use.
But last year, lawmakers and Strickland moved to use the endowment funds as part of a job stimulus package. They subsequently liquidated the endowment and abolished the foundation, prompting legal action by the latter to stop the move.
In his decision on the lawsuit, Franklin County Common Pleas Judge David W. Fais ruled that lawmakers and the governor had other funding options and did not need to liquidate the tobacco endowment.
He also noted that action would cause irreparable harm to individuals who rely on foundation programs “to become and remain tobacco free, …” according to documents. “Depletion of the endowment fund and discontinuance or reduction of the tobacco prevention and cessation programs funded by the endowment fund would result in a substantial increase in tobacco-related premature death and disease in Ohio and result in a substantial increase in medical expense for both Ohioans and the state of Ohio for treatment of tobacco-related disease.”
Strickland said he doesn’t think the ongoing legal battle will have an immediate effect on state spending. A total of $258.6 million in tobacco foundation funds were earmarked in the recently enacted two-year budget to pay for Medicaid services, child and adult protective programs and cancer screenings.
“His ruling is not a surprise, but I am terribly disappointed quite frankly that this judge took 18 months to reach a decision that he should have been able to reach rather quickly,” Strickland said, adding, “I’m glad that we finally have a decision so we can get it to another court. I continue to feel very confident that when this is finally resolved that it will be in a way that will enable us to use these precious resources to continue to provide the auxiliary services.”
Senate President Bill Harris, a Republican from Ashland, agreed with Strickland’s decision to appeal.
“I’m very surprised that that’s his ruling,” he said. “I think the objective was that those dollars could be used very effectively to support a shortfall in the budget. I think we’re taking lots of action to continue to encourage people not to smoke.”
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