Editor, Daily Press:
In the late 1990s, there was a nationwide effort to make tobacco companies accountable for the damage done by their efforts to encourage smoking. That effort was joined by Oklahoma in the form of a lawsuit brought by multiple states and resulted in the largest settlement ever seen in the U.S. The attorney general at the time, Drew Edmondson, was instrumental in drafting the settlement language. He was also instrumental in developing the constitutional status of what we now know as the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust.
By the spring of 1999, a bipartisan supermajority of the Legislature referred a constitutional measure to the ballot. In November 2000, the constitutional amendment was overwhelmingly approved by voters, 69 percent-31 percent. Until 2006, Oklahoma was the only state to have constitutionally protected the settlement payments - with no "out" clause, such as fiscal emergencies for the state.
The wisdom of the people prevailed and has stood us in good stead for 20 years. The thinking at the time in many states was that this was a windfall and a "one-time" payout that many legislatures used for specific projects. Not Oklahoma. The people here, including state leaders, saw this as an investment opportunity that could pay benefits for years to come. Their vision has prevailed and has proved the wisdom of that action.
TSET benefits the state and its people and has done so for two decades, with programs and projects that are community based and led by our friends and neighbors who know our community. Those projects and programs are too numerous to list in this forum, but it is known that Oklahoma has seen a reduction in smoking rates 10 times faster than other similarly priced (tobacco) states. TSET has made investments in the Stephenson Cancer Center that have improved treatment and garnered other grants. TSET has supported physician training in rural/underserved areas and has championed behavior/lifestyle change that has improved the health of the population, leading to saving an estimated 42,000 lives and saving over $1 billion in health care costs. All of this, and much more, is accomplished with a miniscule 3 percent administrative cost.
Now comes the current Legislature and leadership that sees the trust money as a golden goose. SQ 814 is their attempt to undo what was done a generation ago to ensure the future is considered. At that time, nearly 70 percent of citizens voted to set that money aside for a specific purpose: to invest the principal and use the proceeds to improve health. They knew then, and we know now, that legislatures change, and they will spend money as they see fit.
SQ 814 changes the ratio of allocation from 75 percent to TSET and 25 percent to the Legislature to 25 percent for TSET and 75 percent to the legislature. This is exactly what the original group wanted to prevent. In their wisdom, they did what they could to protect the resources from the whims of legislative action by making it a constitutional entity, not legislative. That wisdom had stood the test of time and has born much fruit. Now the citizens of Oklahoma have spoken again and said "yes" to Medicaid expansion, so the Legislature wants to avoid the hard work of funding that action by changing the rules and robbing from the future.
TSET was and is a future-oriented, action-based, community-focused program. It was good government planning and citizen input that got us where we are with that program and it deserves our continued support. Vote "no" on SQ 814.