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ANCHORAGE - Legislators are refusing to spend as much as they promised on a major state campaign against tobacco use, according to advocates with the American Cancer Society.
The anti-tobacco budget shaping up in Juneau falls about $1 million short of what lawmakers just a year ago said they would spend from the millions pouring into Alaska from a tobacco lawsuit settlement.
The Legislature pledged 20 percent of the settlement for programs such as television advertisements against smoking but is granting about 15 percent, activists said.
"For them to turn around before the ink is even dry on the bill and to take it and use it for purposes other than in the legislation they approved last year is scandalous," said Eric Myers, a longtime activist against tobacco and a local board member of the American Cancer Society.
The 20 percent would amount to about $5 million of the $25 million Alaska expects to get this budget year from its 1998 legal settlement with the tobacco companies. A joint House-Senate committee working on the budget split 4-2 along party lines in approving $4 million.
The state estimates it will receive more than $800 million over the next 25 years. The bulk of the tobacco money has been pledged to construction projects.
None of the four Republican members of the budget conference committee, including Sen. Dave Donley and Rep. Eldon Mulder of Anchorage, responded to requests for comment by the Anchorage Daily News about the tobacco money. Donley directed questions to Sen. Lyda Green, a Wasilla Republican who heads the budget subcommittee on health and social services.
Her aide, Jerry Burnett, said the 2001 law put the money into a special tobacco fund but does not dedicate it for tobacco programs. One Legislature cannot bind another under the Alaska Constitution, so lawmakers can spend the tobacco fund for other things, he said.
That does not justify the action, said Rep. John Davies, a Fairbanks Democrat, who voted against it.
The new law created a moral commitment to use the entire 20 percent in the tobacco fund to prevent people from smoking and to help others quit, he said.
"There is a pretty clear understanding in people's minds of what people expected that money to be used for," Davies said.
Fifty-three of the current 60 legislators voted for the bill last year.
"We're not talking about a different Legislature," Davies said. "These are the same people that made the deal last year who are now violating it this year."
Last May, in a press release trumpeting its 2001 legislative accomplishments, the Republican majority said it was "providing about $6 million each year for tobacco cessation and prevention programs, plus $500,000 targeted specifically at keeping young Alaskans from becoming addicted to tobacco."
But even in the current year's budget, the Legislature appropriated just $3 million out of the tobacco settlement fund for anti-tobacco programs, according to state officials. The rest of the money remains locked up.
"We're calling it the glitch. Whether intentional or not, we have no way of knowing," said Emily Nenon, the American Cancer Society's Alaska advocacy manager.