Senator lights up over taxes funding anti-tobacco lobby
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is using taxpayer money to lobby local governments to pass anti-tobacco policies not covered by the state’s no-smoking ban.
As a result, Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, questioned the practice’s legality and is calling on the department to stop doing it.
“It causes me concern on a number of different fronts, including on an equal protection front,” said King, who learned of the practice from a recent state audit of the department. “My premise is, you’re picking winners and losers. You have an agenda and it is a political agenda that takes choice away, and you’re using taxpayer money to do it.”
For the past two years, the department has been spending about $3.5 million a year giving grants to help pass local government ordinances and organizational policies banning or limiting smoking, primarily in areas not covered under the state’s Clean Air Act, which banned smoking in restaurants, bars and other public areas.
The State Auditor’s Office asked attorneys in the Office of Legislative Legal Services whether doing such a thing was what voters intended in 2004 when they approved the amendment, which imposed a 64-cent-a-pack tax on cigarettes and earmarked that money for children’s health care and tobacco cessation programs.
“We concluded that, as the law does not expressly allow policy work, it is not clear the General Assembly intended the Tobacco Prevention Program to use its funding to create policy, change laws or regulate tobacco use,” auditors said in their August report on the issue. “While policy initiatives related specifically to youth access to tobacco products may be within the scope of the statute ... there are no laws specifically stating that grants may be used for policy initiatives.”
Dr. Christoper Urbina, executive director of the department, said his agency absolutely is following the law.
The amendment calls for 16 percent of tax revenue to go to education programs to reduce the number of people who smoke or are exposed to second-hand smoke. Getting local governments to expand no-smoking zones does that, he said.
Urbina insists the department isn’t engaging in lobbying efforts, saying instead that some of the grant money has gone toward “educating” local officials as to the importance of limiting the public’s exposure to smoking, and giving them money to help carry out those policies.
“It’s about educating community leaders, whether or not they’re city councils, health education specialists, school districts, hospitals or community clinics,” Urbina said. “I think it’s very clear. The money is for locals to engage their community leaders ... to talk to them about the dangers of tobacco. The intent is that good policy at a local level helps decrease the exposure to tobacco.”
King, who said Urbina doesn’t seem to understand the definition of lobbying, asked if there’s money available for people to encourage local officials to approve smoking bans, shouldn’t state money also be available to groups that want to oppose such bans?
One of the grants King is questioning went to the Grand Junction Housing Authority, which last year adopted a no-smoking policy at all of its housing units in the Grand Valley.
The authority used the $184,661 it’s received from the department to accomplish that goal.
“The Housing Authority decided we wanted to transition our apartment buildings to be smoke-free,” said Executive Director Jody Kole. “The money was used to hire a staff person to do the work to get that done. Our work with that grant is finished as of (this) week.”
She said the decision was made as much for monetary reasons as it was for health concerns. The cost of cleaning apartments of a smoker is higher and takes longer.
Kole said going smoke-free also addressed concerns of residents who are sensitive to second-hand smoke.
So far, the authority has converted 197 units in two of its buildings. Nearly 250 units in six other buildings owned by the authority are to go smoke-free by April, she said.
Similarly, the Delta County Department of Health and Human Services received more than $128,000 in grant money in the past two years to deal with smoking issues.
Not all of the grant money goes to pushing policy initiatives, Urbina said.
Last month, the Health Board approved a $118,447 grant to the Mesa County Health Department to help patients at Primary Care Partners quit smoking.
King said at this point, he’s not asking the department to end the practice of using state money to enact local no-smoking laws and policies, but to agree to the audit’s recommendation to ask the Colorado Attorney General’s Office to research whether the law allows such use of taxpayer money.
Urbina flatly rejected that recommendation, saying he doesn’t need a legal opinion because he’s satisfied the department isn’t doing anything wrong.
“The only reason that I can think of that you would say, ‘No, we’re not going to do that,’ is because you don’t want to hear the answer,” said King, who wrote Gov. John Hickenlooper asking him to require the AG opinion.
If that doesn’t happen, King vowed to introduce a bill into the Legislature next year. but he doesn’t plan to merely require the department to seek legal advice.
“It would be to restate the (law) to say that under no circumstances would this money be used for policy or political lobbying,” he said.