Texas can’t extinguish tobacco problems

COLLEGE STATION, Texas (U-WIRE) — The Texas tobacco settlement is the largest court settlement in the history of the United States. The evil nicotine-pushers agreed to send $15 billion of their hard-earned drug money to our great state.
When politicians see dollar signs, they get excited. When they get excited, they get careless. So the past few months have given unusual insight into the state’s public servants.
Almost immediately, a great public debate began over distribution of the money. Texas Attorney General Dan Morales, who was responsible for the suit against the tobacco industry, felt it was up to him to distribute the cash (minus some legal fees) as he saw fit. The state congress swiftly ended his spending spree, but decisions still have to be made.
Since this suit was brought on behalf of the taxpayers of the state, perhaps they should all benefit from the proceeds. If we took the entire settlement and subtracted the lawyers’ chunk of the money (a whopping $2.3 billion which deserves closer inspection later), that leaves $12.7 billion dollars.
If this money were evenly distributed among all Texas citizens, each Texan would receive a check for $678 and change. If Texans generously let the state keep the change, the public coffers would still gain more than a million dollars.
Some might argue that this plan gives money to an undeserving segment of the population. It is the cigarette smokers who earned this cash for the state. This money is intended to offset the huge medical expenses incurred by long-term tobacco users under state care.
So an alternate plan could involve offering cigarette smokers their portion of the pot — with a few strings. Each tobacco smoker in the state could get a letter offering a check for $2,700 if they agree to never again set foot in a hospital or doctor’s office anywhere in the state. Hey, if people are willing to play the lottery, they might accept such a generous offer from the folks in Austin.
The state seems to have no problem spending money, but a more violent discussion has centered around the legal fees related to the ruling.
The attorneys responsible for this settlement were promised 15 percent of the proceeds, but no one expected to dish out $2.3 billion to the lawyers (as though the remaining $12.7 billion is suddenly too small an amount).
A similar debate is going on in Florida, where lawyers are owed $2.8 billion of that state’s tobacco money. Fortunately, our lawyers selflessly limited their cut to 15 percent instead of the 25 percent demanded by the greedy jurists in the Sunshine State.
In Texas, Morales hired lawyers whose political leanings were similar to his own. In fact, many of the lawyers had contributed to Morales’ campaigns (of course, he’s not going to hire his arch-rivals).
This leaves state Republicans in a serious position. They must make sure good, conservative tobacco money doesn’t line the pockets of evil, Democratic lawyers.
The lawyers’ portion is definitely hefty. If the money were divided evenly, each lawyer attached to the case will get about $35 million. This sum is intimidating on its own, but imagine what these legal beagles could do if they pooled their resources.
Assuming it costs $60 million to run for president, if the entire $2.3 billion were hidden in a bank, the money would provide enough cash to finance 10 presidential candidates every four years. The country has yet to recover from a single Ross Perot. If Perot bought large chunks of media air time, these guys could rent prime time for the whole month of November.
Texas officials will be locked in arbitration for some time over the final distribution of the tobacco settlement money, and the issue is complicated. Yet the original lawsuit is terribly disturbing. The state has legalized tobacco and taxed its sale for years, but suddenly the elite are seeking more money and blaming big tobacco for all sorts of griefs. Responsibility for widespread tobacco use and illness does not end with the growers and marketers.

— Dave Johnston’s column originally appeared in Thursday’s edition of the Texas A&M University Battalion.