Please forgive putting that catchy “877-CASH-NOW” jingle in mind, but the Jindal administration is basically singing that the multibillion-dollar structured settlement with Big Tobacco is their money and they need cash now.
Nobody pays dollar-for-dollar on these transactions that turn settlements paid out over years into immediate cash. But Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols estimates the state could clear about $750 million selling what remains of the billions cigarette manufacturers pay to settle a 1990s lawsuit.
And, if the Legislature hurries, that money will become available by the end June.
Basically, the state would sell bonds, pocket those proceeds before the new fiscal year begins on July 1, then use the money Big Tobacco still owes to repay the loan.
Part of the tobacco settlement was sold back in 2001; Nichols argues that market conditions are highly favorable to sell the rest. The money could fund the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, the politically popular program that pays tuition for some college students, at up to $100 million a year for the next seven to eight years.
At that point, in 2023, the bond from the earlier sale gets paid off, and maybe some new tobacco settlement monies could start flowing again, which could provide an ongoing source of money for TOPS.
Forty states settled lawsuits in November 1998, which meant the major cigarette manufacturers would pay out an estimated $246 billion during the first 25 years to address public health problems.
Louisiana would follow California, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Minnesota, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, West Virginia and Wisconsin in selling all of their tobacco settlement monies for up-front cash.
ProPublica, the Pulitzer Prize-winning online investigative journalism nonprofit, in August 2014 analyzed these deals, in which a handful of states promised to repay $64 billion on just $3 billion advanced. Quoting critics who likened the transactions to “payday loans,” the study noted that New Jersey’s Chris Christie, another Republican governor flirting with a 2016 presidential run, used the cash to plug budget holes. That action ended up causing a downgrade in the state’s credit rating.
The Louisiana Tobacco Settlement Financing Corp. voted 12-1 to set the fast-track process in motion.
Only state Treasurer John Kennedy, a member of the panel that Nichols chairs, interrupted what otherwise was a round of congratulations about the presumed brilliance of the plan.
Interactions between Nichols and Kennedy, regardless of the venue, feature steely politeness and deftly aimed verbal daggers. The Tobacco Settlement board meeting did not disappoint.
As Kennedy ticked off the various savings accounts the Jindal administration has raided to plug revenue shortfalls year after year, and legislators’ discomfort with the governor’s plans to fill next year’s $1.6 billion deficit, Nichols stopped twirling her pencil and clutched it in her fist.
“You dangle $700 million in front of the Louisiana Legislature now, and it’s going to be spent as fast as green grass goes through a goose,” Kennedy said.
Nichols repeated that the Jindal administration would drop support for the sale if legislators showed signs of diverting the money to any spending other than TOPS. “The administration is specifically looking for a long-term revenue stream for TOPS. That is our interest,” Nichols said.
Kennedy wants to throw the brakes on completing the $750 million deal, calling it the second largest financial transaction in state history after the “cash now” sale in 2001.
A slowdown would allow legislators to analyze the situation better.
Kennedy’s point was reinforced when Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, who apparently reads the state constitution, caught Kennedy and Nichols by surprise. Article VII, Section 10.2 (F) (1) would require 20 percent of any sales to go to the Coastal Protection & Restoration Fund. Of the remaining monies, 25 percent has to go to LA Fund (unless two-thirds of the Legislature vote to change the law) to pay for health care costs. It was designed to avoid, well, selling the rest of the tobacco settlement and using the money to pay operating expenses, he said.
Assuming $750 million in proceeds, which means $150 million off the top for coastal, then a split of the rest, leaving TOPS with about $450 million for the next seven to eight years.
Dardenne says he’s not necessarily against the idea of selling the remainder of the tobacco settlement. “But I would need to look into it first. I have a lot questions,” he said.
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau.