It was presented as one of those impossible choices: good vs. good. UNC-Chapel Hill wants a new cancer center and even in a tight budget year, who is going to say "no" to that?
That's what powerful state senators were banking on when they made a last-minute legislative move to fund the center using state tobacco settlement dollars. It's not the first time such a maneuver has been tried and The News & Observer rightly fixed on the sneakiness of the process. Attachments to "technical corrections" bills are not debated publicly, the paper noted, especially not at the end of a session.
Ultimately the effort failed. But in the hubbub over the process, another key question failed to get asked, namely, why North Carolina keeps looking for ways to spend its tobacco settlement dollars on everything but smoking prevention?
That's what Bob Parker is worried about. He's a member of the Health and Wellness Trust Fund Commission, the group that distributes the portion of the state's tobacco settlement that cancer center backers had their eye on. Over the past two years, Parker has watched trust fund dollars go to high-profile political projects (the governor's prescription drug program for seniors took almost all of the fund's available money for the first three years) and to plug state budget holes. This year, legislators tried once again to siphon off trust fund money for a new cancer center (though apparently, those dollars would be used only if other state money was not forthcoming).
Parker was hoping lawmakers would do something really preventive and raise cigarette taxes to fund needed projects. It's not that he opposes a new cancer center. "I just object to the fact that prevention money is going to be used for it," Parker says. Funds spent on prevention programs are far more cost-effective than money spent on the "sick care system."
"It's unfortunate that the [legislative] leadership doesn't understand the power of prevention," Parker says.
The leadership of the trust fund commission doesn't seem to understand it, either. The board has yet to take a firm stand for the notion that tobacco settlement money be used for the purposes for which it was intended--preventing smoking. Certainly, Jeffrey Houpt, dean of UNC's Medical School and a member of the commission, had no incentive to criticize plans to use trust fund money for a cancer center at his university.
Since the trust fund never took a vote on the matter, Houpt didn't appear to violate any conflict of interest rules. But it's worth asking why the cancer center wasn't included in the university bond issue that was publicly debated in the legislature.
As for the Health and Wellness Trust Fund, if that money isn't going to be used primarily to prevent smoking, but instead is going to be the target of raids by lawmakers with pet causes, why not put it back in the general fund where at least the public would have an opportunity to debate how it gets spent?