Give vot­ers a say on us­ing TSET funds

The Oklahoman - - OPINION - BY JONATHAN SMALL Small is pres­i­dent of the Ok­la­homa Coun­cil of Pub­lic Af­fairs (www.oc­pa­think.org).

It costs just $51.45 per per­son per day for the state of Ok­la­homa to fully fund all state share costs of a nurs­ing home bed.

The Tobacco Set­tle­ment En­dow­ment Trust spent $653,150 in fis­cal years 2015 and 2016 on a project called Free The Night, which of­fers “pro­mo­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties to smoke­free bars and clubs.” That same $653,150 could have been used to fund 12,694 days for nurs­ing home beds for Ok­la­homa’s most vul­ner­a­ble.

Think about that num­ber for just a mo­ment. That’s 12,694 days for vul­ner­a­ble Ok­la­homa grand­moth­ers and grand­fa­thers.

Shouldn’t TSET’s money and en­ergy be re­fo­cused on things like crit­i­cal health care, crit­i­cal health and hu­man ser­vices, or crit­i­cal men­tal health and sub­stance abuse ser­vices? Ab­so­lutely. In fact, some of TSET’s man­dates in­clude “Pro­grams … de­signed to main­tain or im­prove the health of Ok­la­homans” and “Pro­grams de­signed to en­hance the health and well-be­ing of se­nior adults.”

TSET needs to be re­fo­cused on pay­ing for core ser­vices to the most vul­ner­a­ble Ok­la­homans, es­pe­cially dur­ing tough eco­nomic times, rather than ques­tion­able grant pro­grams and ha­rass­ing Ok­la­homans about their per­sonal life­style de­ci­sions aside from smok­ing. With more than $1 bil­lion in the bank, in­vest­ment earn­ings of about $40 mil­lion per year, and ad­di­tional in­come of $50 mil­lion per year from the sale of cig­a­rettes, it’s ob­vi­ous TSET of­fers state lead­ers an op­por­tu­nity to shore up core ser­vices.

TSET re­ports that it spends a lit­tle less than 40 per­cent on tobacco ces­sa­tion and a whop­ping 30 per­cent on “obe­sity” ef­forts. Over the years, TSET has re­ceived greater scru­tiny as it has en­gaged in ef­forts to pro­vide com­mu­ni­ties with grants in ex­change for them ha­rass­ing law-abid­ing Ok­la­homans who have cho­sen to use va­p­ing prod­ucts to help break their far more harm­ful tra­di­tional smok­ing habit. They also have spent mil­lions of dol­lars with ex­pen­sive pub­lic re­la­tions firms and on ad­ver­tis­ing.

Last year, pub­lic out­rage forced TSET to change course when it at­tempted to cre­ate an ad­min­is­tra­tive po­si­tion with a salary of $250,000 a year. Most re­cently, TSET re­leased a multi-mil­lion dol­lar bid to fur­ther harass Ok­la­homans about their per­sonal life­style de­ci­sions aside from smok­ing.

This is why the Ok­la­homa Coun­cil of Pub­lic Af­fairs has called on law­mak­ers to al­low Ok­la­homans to vote on re­form­ing TSET and ac­cess­ing those funds to pro­tect vi­tal ser­vices. The state con­sti­tu­tion says that re­form­ing TSET re­quires a vote of the peo­ple. But so does pass­ing any tax hike that has less than three-fourths sup­port in both leg­isla­tive cham­bers. Why not let Ok­la­homans vote to re­form TSET?

Core ser­vices con­tinue to suf­fer from un­re­formed spend­ing. TSET’s spend­ing is just one ex­am­ple of a govern­ment en­tity mak­ing highly ques­tion­able spend­ing de­ci­sions at a time when we need to pri­or­i­tize core ser­vices.

It’s time to use TSET funds to pro­tect crit­i­cal, core ser­vices. The Leg­is­la­ture should not leave the spe­cial ses­sion with­out send­ing TSET re­forms to a vote of the peo­ple by the end of cal­en­dar year 2017.

Jonathan Small

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