We hear a lot from politicians about the will of the people, so much so that the people might think their will is going to be carried out by politicians in office.
Except, it seems, when it’s not convenient.
That’s the case with proposed Constitutional Amendment No. 1 on the Oct. 22 primary election ballot.
It’s complicated, involving a set of funds established to hold the proceeds of the big tobacco lawsuit settlement of the late 1990s. But the bottom line is that this amendment will take the money voters wanted to sock away in a trust fund for education and health care, and turn it into a source of income for the popular TOPS scholarships.
We urge voters to reject the proposed amendment.
The tobacco trust, called the Millennium Fund, has about $1.38 billion in it, and that will continue to generate earnings. But its planned future revenue from the tobacco settlement will be diverted to pay for TOPS, which from the get-go got some tobacco settlement proceeds.
The diversion envisioned by this amendment, which was pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal, would take essentially all the future revenue for TOPS.
This is not just an accounting change.
It means that over time there will be much less money for the Millennium Trust funds that benefit children’s health care, at-risk children and other causes. But for the politicians, this swap is golden: They will be able to use the tobacco revenue to pay for the rising costs of TOPS, which ordinarily would be funded out of general state revenue.
That means more general fund dollars to spend on the governor’s and legislators’ priorities, not those established by the people in 1998 when voters approved the Millennium Trust’s constitutional amendment.
One complicating factor in this amendment is the inclusion of renewal of a four cents per pack tax on cigarettes — a tax renewal vetoed by Jindal but backed by most legislators. The legislators included renewal of the tax in the amendment, so that Jindal would be forced to take it as part of his proposal.
The cigarette tax renewal is a good thing. The governor should never have vetoed such a renewal. And its proceeds would flow into the health fund in the Millennium Trust, which as a result would not suffer as much from the cutoff of tobacco settlement money.
As we said earlier, this is complex. The Public Affairs Research Council, in its invaluable guide to the amendments, provides a more detailed breakdown of the funds, dedications and swaps involved. The PAR guide is available at http://www.la-par.org.
But the very complexity of this amendment is part of its devious nature: The administration wants to get that tobacco money as a general fund revenue source.
We are focused less on the merits of TOPS versus health care or even the ideological blindness that led Jindal to veto a tax renewal. We are focused on the short-term thinking that this amendment represents.
The governor and lawmakers are banking that voters will hear “TOPS amendment” and vote for it — not realizing that voters are being asked to reverse the will of the people to “trust up” this money for future generations. It will benefit today’s legislators by freeing up for other purposes money that would otherwise go to TOPS.
In 1998, we strongly supported the idea of a trust for the tobacco settlement. It’s a large infusion of cash that is not a recurring revenue source. Making it a permanent benefit makes sense for the long term.
The long term: That’s not what this amendment is about.