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O.C. Bucking Voter Will on Tobacco Fund

Spending: Supervisors reconsidering using windfall to pay off debt since public's clear Nov. 7 mandate for health care isn't in effect yet.


Barely two weeks after Orange County voters said overwhelmingly that tobacco funds should go mostly for health care, the Board of Supervisors on Monday decided to consider spending this year's $28-million allotment to pay off government debt instead.

Health care advocates were left stunned by Monday's vote. Supervisors had previously voted to divide this year's share of the national tobacco settlement funds, with half going toward health care programs and the remainder toward paying down the county's bankruptcy debt.

Because Measure H, approved by 65% of the county's voters on Nov. 7, doesn't take effect until July, board Chairman Chuck Smith said it was time to consider spending as much as possible now on debt reduction.

"We agreed to that 50-50 split long before the election, so I think--in light of that--it's fair to reconsider it," Smith said. He said supervisors have a one-time opportunity to spend the money as they see fit.

Supervisor Cynthia P. Coad agreed the board should talk again about how to spend the $28-million windfall. Coad said she's also put off by the vague definition of "health care," saying it could easily be stretched to include housing conditions or even ocean water quality.

The supervisors' actions left health care advocates angered and surprised.

"They just don't want to listen to the will of the people," said Michele Revelle, Orange County Medical Assn. spokeswoman.

"This is exactly why we went forward with getting Measure H passed," Revelle said. "They voted to give us 50% earlier and we didn't like it then, and now it looks like they're going to renege on it."

Felix Schwarz, executive director of the Health Care Council of Orange County, said county supervisors are trying to "rip off" money that should be going to health care.

On Monday, supervisors also scheduled a closed-door meeting for today to debate whether they should go to court to fight Measure H.

The county will receive $28 million in tobacco settlement money this fiscal year and as much as $35 million in annual installments over the next quarter of a century.

Smith, speaking at a meeting to discuss the county's strategic financial plan, said the passage of Measure H prompted his suggestion to "revisit" an earlier promise to split tobacco money for fiscal year 2000-01 by giving $14.2 million to health care and $14.2 million to pay down county debt and pay for new jail beds.

With Measure H not kicking in until the following fiscal year, supervisors need to discuss whether the board should take the opportunity to spend more on debt reduction now, Smith said.

"I'm not saying how much we should spend toward debt reduction," Smith said in a brief interview. "We could make it 80%, the same amount [health care advocates] want to spend on health. But we need to fully look at this."

To support the initiative, the health care community--including doctors, clinics operators and hospital administrators--mounted a sweeping campaign that raised nearly $1 million. Now, unhappy with the board's latest moves, they fear they may have to raise more money to defend Measure H.

"The supervisors should believe it's time to rebuild the relationship with the health care community because we need to start working with them and they need to start working with us," Revelle said.

During the meeting, Supervisors Todd Spitzer and Tom Wilson argued with Smith to honor the original commitment and not tamper with the formula. But it was apparent that Smith knew he had the votes of fellow board members Coad and Jim Silva.

"I knew that as a result of Measure H's passage, that the rules of the game were going to be reinterpreted,' Spitzer said. "And, there's no doubt in my mind that [a board majority] will vote to challenge it in court [Tuesday]."

Spitzer and Wilson initially opposed Smith's motion, but later switched their votes in order to get the matter set for a hearing that all supervisors would be able to attend.

Coad said she's willing to talk with board members about allocations because she doesn't agree with the definition of "health issues" as interpreted by health care leaders.

"For example, we have poor housing conditions where there are cockroaches infested in low-income housing. That's a health need right there. And improving ocean water quality is also another health item that they don't agree on," she said. Coad said she agrees with Smith that further discussion is needed.

Beyond today's closed-door meeting, supervisors agreed to renew the tobacco-fund debate at their Dec. 5 meeting.

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