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Wednesday, February 5, 2003

Senate Panel OKs Use of Tobacco Money

By Winthrop Quigley
Journal Staff Writer
    SANTA FE The Senate Finance Committee voted along party lines 5-4 Tuesday to help pay the state's bills with a 4-year-old savings account built from tobacco lawsuit settlement monies.
    Senate Bill 298, if enacted, would eliminate the Tobacco Settlement Permanent Fund and move its $60 million into the state's general fund. The measure was requested by Gov. Bill Richardson to help pay the state's estimated $80 million Medicaid budget shortfall.
    The governor "asked for tools" to balance his budget, said Sen. Ben D. Altamirano, D-Silver City, the committee chairman. "We're giving him heavy equipment."
    New Mexico has received about $130 million since 1999 from tobacco companies that were sued by several states to reclaim money spent on providing health care to smokers. By statute, half of the funds are banked in the state's permanent fund and the remainder is spent on health care projects, smoking cessation and prevention and education.
    "This is horrible," said Sen. Joe Carraro, R-Albuquerque, one of four Republicans who voted against eliminating the fund.
    "Medicaid is driving our budget," Carraro said. The tobacco funds will disappear to help take care of the $1.9 billion program that provides health care to low-income children and adults, he said.
    "Then what do we do?" he asked. "We need to fix Medicaid."
    Sen. Tim Jennings, D-Roswell, disagreed, saying, "This governor is more attuned to health care than anyone else." He said Richardson is committed to spending general fund monies on most of the programs tobacco revenues have been supporting.
    In an interview, Carraro said he is considering teaming with other senators to come up with Medicaid program cuts as a way of helping reduce state spending and save the tobacco fund.
    "Until we get Medicaid under control, we won't be able to do anything," he said.