After 10 months of discussions and community meetings, a Los Angeles County citizens commission Thursday approved a plan outlining how it will spend $87 million in cigarette tax revenue the county has reaped following voter approval of Proposition 10.
The commission, which has drawn flak for its deliberate, methodical process, gave its preliminary approval to the plan about five weeks before voters will decide whether to repeal Proposition 10. Under the requirements of the proposition, which was backed by actor-director Rob Reiner and narrowly approved by voters in 1998, all the cigarette tax revenue must be spent in the interests of children up to age 5.
Under the Los Angeles plan, $25 million would be spent on parent education, literacy programs and the panel's top priority, a parenting advice help line.
Another $25 million would go toward improving access to services through programs like a home visitation system with nurses to counsel parents. And $25 million more would go into child care programs. Finally, $12 million would fund administration, research and anti-smoking campaigns or other public outreach.
Another $78 million in tax revenue received by the commission will be allocated in June, and the panel withheld final approval of the plan until its meeting next month, when it will incorporate a number of technical changes. Contracts are not expected to be solicited until March at the earliest.
Still, the document approved Thursday lays out a road map for dividing the largest infusion of unrestricted cash for children's issues that local government has seen in recent memory.
"It's going to make a very significant difference in how our children are treated when they're very young," commission member Alice Walker Duff said after the plan was approved.
An audience of about 40 advocates and activists broke into applause moments after the unanimous voice vote approving the document, as Supervisor Gloria Molina, the commission's chairwoman, said: "All right then, we have a strategic plan."
Ned Roscoe, who runs a chain of cigarette stores and is sponsoring the effort on the March 7 ballot to repeal the 50-cent-a-pack tax, said the programs being created by the Los Angeles commission and its counterparts across the state are insulting.
"The underlying premise is wrong: that we're from the government and we know how to raise a child and you need help," he said. "If they really wanted to help parents, they'd give them the money directly."
Proposition 10 was created by Reiner after he heard of research showing that the first three years of life have the greatest impact on the development of children but get the least government support. The tax increase was fought furiously by the tobacco industry, and passed by only 80,000 votes, a margin of less than 1%.
It created an unusual statewide governmental structure to try to insulate from political pressures the decisions on how the $680 million in annual tax money is spent. The money is divided among an appointed state commission and appointed commissions in each of California's 58 counties.
From the start, the Los Angeles commission said it would move slowly to garner as much community input as possible and to ensure that the money did not flow into traditional bureaucratic structures.
The Board of Supervisors did not even make the commission fully autonomous until late last year, after a state attorney general's opinion found that county governments like Los Angeles' could not take control of the funds.
Stalled by the questions over who controls its staff, Los Angeles' commission hired its executive director only at Thursday's meeting. It chose Evelyn Martinez, the former executive director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a Drug Free Community.
On Thursday, commission members defended their pace. "Planning isn't something which is just done overnight," Molina said.