TOPEKA CAPITAL-JOURNAL: Advocacy group questions A.G.’s grip on revised tobacco settlement information

By Tim Carpenter
May 22, 2013

The state’s leading child advocacy group expressed renewed frustration Wednesday with the attorney general’s shroud of secrecy over financial details of Kansas’ latest haul from the national tobacco company settlement.

Shannon Cotsoradis, president and chief executive officer of Kansas Action for Children in Topeka, said the public had been denied timely, thorough access to details of adjustments in payments to Kansas negotiated by Attorney General Derek Schmidt. He did make public a heavily redacted report Tuesday.

While documents were withheld by Schmidt for weeks, officials in other states — Nebraska, Arkansas, New Hampshire — voluntarily disclosed materials spelling out amounts disbursed to those states by tobacco companies.

“They’re creating smoke and mirrors,” Cotsoradis said. “We’re baffled at this point about the cloud of secrecy.”

She said a Kansas Open Records Act request from the Topeka organization for an accountant’s report on Kansas’ share, which was pending in Schmidt’s office for 20 days, was filled moments before a House-Senate budget committee endorsed Gov. Sam Brownback’s proposal to sweep $9.5 million in new tobacco settlement payments into the general state treasury.

A new KORA request Wednesday by Kansas Action for Children to Schmidt seeks clarification of a footnote in materials suggesting the attorney general authorized deferral until 2014 of a portion of the state’s 2013 tobacco payments.

Schmidt’s office didn’t immediately respond to requests for detailed information about the tobacco fund.

States have been receiving proceeds from a national settlement with tobacco companies for more than a dozen years. Payments to Kansas have been deposited in a trust fund — the Kansas Endowment for Youth, known as KEY — or directed to other state spending priorities. The trust fund supports the Children’s Initiative Fund, or CIF, which provides aid to Early Head Start and Parents as Teachers programs. An appointed Children’s Cabinet makes recommendations about expenditures of tobacco money, but the final decisions are left to the Legislature and Brownback.

In April, Kansas received $68 million in tobacco settlement funding for the year. The state anticipated a $55 million payment, which left an opening for Brownback to declare demand on the fund had been satisfied and justify the sweep of $9.5 million.

“The recommendation in no way affects how much funding any of the early-childhood education programs funded by the KEY fund or by the CIF receives,” said Sherriene Jones-Sontag, spokeswoman for the governor.

The latest version of the House-Senate budget compromise also would pull $6 million in each of the next two fiscal years from tobacco accounts for a reading improvement program endorsed by Brownback. Jones-Sontag said the Children’s Cabinet would be an appropriate place to administer this two-year, $12 million initiative because it would “allow us to make sure all of these efforts are synchronized.”

House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, said diversion of state resources undermined programs beneficial to children.

“That’s money that legislators committed to children’s programs that is now being heisted in an attempt to balance this budget,” Davis said.

Since establishment of the KEY fund for children, Kansas lawmakers have taken steps to divert more than $140 million to the state general fund.

Kansas Action for Children filed a petition recently in Shawnee County District Court that accused Schmidt of violating the state’s open records act by declining to release the accounting report. Schmidt spokesman Don Brown said the documents would be withheld until “it can lawfully be released.”

Public disclosure Tuesday of materials sought by KAC was a mixed blessing, because large sections of pages were obscured by black ink. Much of the redacted information applied to other states, but a column detailing adjustments in Kansas’ compensation was obscured.

It is unclear, from documents shared by Schmidt, what the state could expect to receive from the settlement during the next five years.

Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat on the Senate’s budget committee, said the attorney general should spell out for legislators and policy advocates all available detail regarding the tobacco funds.

“I don’t understand why the attorney general refuses to give a straight answer regarding the tobacco settlement dollar amount,” Kelly said. “He released some documents, but there is so much redacted, it is nearly impossible to make sense of them.”

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