U stands to gain from state’s take in tobacco settlement

by Coralie Carlson

To the surprise of University officials, Gov. Jesse Ventura said he wants to dedicate part of the $6.1 billion tobacco settlement to a medical research endowment at the University.
Ventura made the announcement to a group of party leaders in the state Legislature on Wednesday night. The proposed endowment would fund health-related research at the University and Mayo Clinic.
University President Mark Yudof said he favors the idea and he previously discussed the plan in brief with Ventura and some members of the Legislature.
“The long-term health of the people of Minnesota depends on the long-term health of the education programs at the University and Mayo,” Yudof said.
Dr. Frank Cerra, senior vice president of the Academic Health Center, said the first time he heard of Ventura’s proposal was Wednesday afternoon when he saw it in the newspaper. Cerra said the money ought to be used for health research and he supports an endowment to reach that end.
The state received its first payment of the settlement — $220.8 million — on Monday. Former Attorney General Hubert H. “Skip” Humphrey III won the money in a landmark case against the tobacco industry in April.
Some of the money is earmarked for smoking cessation and prevention programs. But the state legislators haven’t decided how to divvy out the rest of the cash yet. State officials do not know whether to blend the money into the general budget or to treat the cash as a separate entity.
Even Ventura’s ideas have not been solidified into specific proposals. The governor did not designate how much money should fund the endowment or specific areas of research.
“He’s been saying it at different things, but there’s nothing really official,” said Teresa McFarland, Ventura’s spokesperson.
Senate Democrat leadership supports Ventura’s musings, while House Republicans generally favor tax breaks.
Rep. Fran Bradly, R-Rochester, warned that Ventura will have trouble pushing the endowment plan through the House. Bradly, who chairs the Health and Human Services Committee, prefers using the money to subsidize or eliminate the Minnesota provider tax — a 2 percent tax on all health care bills.
Regardless of the specific plan, the money should be directed to health care programs and fund programs with measurable effects, said Sen. David Ten Eyck, DFL-East Gull Lake. Ten Eyck, who works with higher education and health issues in the Legislature, said he prefers Ventura’s idea for the settlement because others spread the money so thin that the effects are negligible.
Dr. John Kersey, director of the Cancer Center, noted that an endowment would prevent the Legislature from potentially meddling with the funds every year.
“It’s most important that the money is used for health-related purposes,” Kersey said.
He said endowment research money could support tobacco-related health research from cancer to heart disease. Over the years, an endowment would allow the research to change with the needs of the state.
Other medical experts also backed the governor’s plan.
“From my perspective, putting it in some sort of endowment would mean it was available to future generations,” said Dr. Charles Moldow, associate dean of research programs.