Tuesday, May 08, 2018

OCPA column: More money, more problems


More money, more problems
by OCPA President Jonathan Small

It’s been busy lately, so you may not have noticed that the state of Oklahoma received $71 million from the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement.

Of that amount, the Oklahoma attorney general received a little over $4 million. The state general fund collected a little over $13 million.

The real winner was the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust (TSET). TSET received a little more than $53 million. Don’t worry; they’ve got a safe place to keep it. They will add that $53 million to the $1.1 billion they are already sitting on.

This payment from the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement happens every year. With all that cash in the bank and yearly deposits around $50 million, one can’t help but wonder how TSET will use their growing largesse. TSET gets to spend the earnings just about however they want.

A few years ago, TSET hired a California consulting firm that labels itself “the behavior change agency,” to create Free The Night. Over the last few years, TSET has spent more than $1.1 million on the program “supporting smoke-free bars and clubs.”

In 2017, TSET spent more than $700,000 on billboard advertisements, mostly in Oklahoma’s large metro areas, advising Oklahomans to (among other things) consume more water. One message even offered “water recipes.” Former Oklahoma attorney general and TSET architect Drew Edmondson has questioned TSET’s harassment of Oklahomans for drinking sugary drinks or juice.

TSET could also double down on their relationship with the embattled Oklahoma State Department of Health, or TSET could try to add a new administrator at a salary of $250,000 again.

All this is what happens when an unaccountable government agency sits on mountains of cash and gets more every year. Soon enough, some spending moves from core, critical areas like health and human services and towards silly pet projects.

Sometimes TSET does make healthier financial decisions. Last year, TSET’s board of directors voted to provide more than $3 million for senior nutrition services and a mobile mental health crisis program for children. This is how TSET money should be spent: on core, critical services for our most vulnerable.

Core services continue to suffer from unreformed spending. TSET's spending is just one example of a government entity making highly questionable spending decisions at a time when we need to prioritize core services.

It’s time we stop TSET’s spending spree and allow Oklahomans the chance to better spend future tobacco settlement dollars. If lawmakers allow us to vote on TSET reforms, then we can prioritize spending and help the most vulnerable.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (www.ocpathink.org).

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