Twins’ hopes smolder in tobacco deal

Add smokers to Minnesota’s list of endangered species. When smokers are paying four bucks a pack, they will become as rare as the wild bison. As a result of the recent tobacco settlement, Attorney General Skip Humphrey has assured us that an additional $1.50 will be added to the cost of a pack of cigarettes.
Meanwhile, another endangered Minnesota species, the Twins, may be removed from the list as a result of the tobacco windfall. Twins owner Carl Pohlad has continued to quietly bluff his way into $487 million. Now that the state has $6.6 billion to play with, he might get it after all.
Throughout the trial, Humphrey claimed that the lawsuit was being waged on behalf of smokers, nonsmokers and future generations of Minnesotans. Even Humphrey must know that the money cannot be spent entirely on anti-smoking programs alone. If he doesn’t, smokers may see the money that they forked over to tobacco companies laundered and filtered through the highest levels of state government in a perpetually accelerating cycle of anti-smoking propaganda.
Attorney General Humphrey deserves some credit; he was bold enough to go for the jackpot and he won, knowing that he could have lost a lot more than his pride to the tobacco giants. Millions of taxpayer’s dollars were at stake in covering the costs of the trial and his constituents would have given him hell for a settlement of anything less.
In aiming to make the tobacco companies squirm, Humphrey came out of the trial with more liquid cash than even the most militant anti-smoking interest groups could have expected.
Governor Carlson is right to point out that the settlement was not a victory for just Humphrey and co-plaintiff Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, but for all Minnesotans. Carlson has indicated that the award money belongs in the state’s general fund where all citizens — not just DFL supporters and Blue Cross and Blue Shield policy holders — will benefit from the agreement.
Anti-smoking advocates will still get the largest slice of the pie. Blue Cross and Blue Shield will get $469 million in compensation awards. Humphrey has proposed that about $650 million should be paid into a public health foundation directed by anti-tobacco organizations. Moreover, a $102 million fund starting in 1999 will subsidize smoking-cessation programs. The industry will also pay $100 million over the next 10 years to pay for national research into why children start smoking and how best to target prevention efforts. Even after all of this, billions of dollars are still unclaimed.
The state of Minnesota has now leapt light years beyond the regulation and taxation of tobacco compared with other states. Minnesota has always been the land of 10,000 taxes, and the wages of smokers have long been a favored source of revenue for the state’s political machinery. The state was never in desperate need of a quick $6.6 billion for anti-smoking programs; the money had been there all along.
Some legislators have begun talking about tax relief again. Unfortunately, those same legislators made redistributing last tax season’s relatively measly $2 billion look like a session of pulling teeth — not nearly enough Minnesotans ever stood the chance of benefiting from the heralded tax rebates.
Of course tax relief would be welcomed by smokers and nonsmokers alike. But at least part of the billions of dollars which are presently unallocated will ultimately be spent by bureaucrats on special interest causes having nothing to do with anti-tobacco programs and education anyway.
The inevitable end to all of this political wrangling must be worth everyone’s money. Now more than ever, the state should be able to splurge a bit. It’s hard to imagine a more unifying cause for all Minnesotans than keeping the Twins at home.
Rest assured that over the next few months, years or even decades, the state’s key political figures will turn the suit’s award money into a sugar daddy for causes of yet undreamed. In what Twins fans might find to be a matter of good timing, by the end of the year the legislature will get the chance to give a final thumbs up or down on the fate of funding for the Twins stadium. Now, more than ever, Pohlad would be well advised to get back in line. Now that the state has money to burn, he can’t afford not to. There’s still hope for the mess in which the Twins are wrapped up.
Even the most conservative investors might look at the situation this way: Compared to the state of Minnesota’s recent windfall of $6.6 billion, the price of keeping the Twins here looks minuscule. After all, we might make good in taking Pohlad’s offer to sell part or all of the Twins to the state. If he must have his cash, now is the time to give it to him. Whether you’re a money hungry anti-tobacco crusader or even the most disgruntled smoker, the price is right.
You might think that nonsmokers would even welcome the opportunity to spend the tobacco industry’s’s fortunes on a worthy cause, above and beyond the anti-tobacco agenda. A Twins riverfront stadium might be the best for which we can all hope.
For Twins fans who are smokers, securing the stadium would be an ironic victory. Cleveland Indians fans did something similar when they approved the building of Jacobs Field with the revenues from “sin taxes” on cigarettes. Now, smoking is banned at their stadium except for a few small designated areas far away from the action on the field.
However, most Minnesotans still agree that keeping the Twins in the state goes beyond political disagreements over tobacco. If the tobacco industry’s bloated profits do get funnelled down into a new stadium, nonsmokers will have nothing to complain about — all of that money was never originally theirs anyway. Of course the billions aren’t the property of nonsmokers alone. We’d all be fools to not have our cash and keep the Twins too.

Gregory Borchard’s column appears every Thursday. He can be reached with comments via e-mail at [email protected].