Ray Carter, OCPA Center for Independent Journalism
OKLAHOMA CITY -– Oklahoma’s Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust has spent as much, and sometimes more, promoting bars and nightclubs and a boathouse foundation than it has on recruiting rural doctors to Oklahoma, records show.
Curtis Shelton, Policy Research Fellow at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a free-market think tank, said those findings demonstrate that Oklahoma is not getting the maximum health benefit from its tobacco dollars.
“As the endowment has grown, so has the scope of TSET’s spending,” Shelton said. “It’s now worth asking if TSET’s spending practices are truly improving Oklahoma’s health statistics, or if it is time to reform the system and redirect future settlement payments to higher priorities such as rural healthcare.”
Thanks to payments from the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement, the Oklahoma Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust (TSET) now holds more than $1 billion in payments from tobacco companies. TSET is supposed to spend earnings from that endowment on health causes, but the constitutional provision creating TSET includes vaguely defined goals, which has led to questionable spending practices.
In 2015 TSET created a program called Free the Night that promotes bars and nightclubs that have smoke-free areas. Between 2015 and 2018 that program received $1.05 million in TSET funding.
Between 2015 and 2017, TSET gave $781,500 to the Oklahoma City Boathouse Foundation. (TSET did not give to the Boathouse in 2018.)
Oklahoma’s Physician Manpower Training Commission (PMTC), which works to attract medical professionals to rural areas, received less from TSET from 2015 to 2017 ($617,500) than did the “Free the Night” program and the boathouse foundation during that same time.
From 2015 to 2018, TSET’s total spending on the physician program barely exceeded the total amount spent on nightclubs, but the amount going to doctor recruitment was still far less than the amount of TSET money spent on the nightclub and boathouse programs combined during those years.
Polling commissioned by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs and conducted by WPA Intelligence found that 78 percent of Oklahoma voters support redirecting future payments from TSET to rural health care needs. The poll found an outright majority – 58 percent – “strongly” support the proposal.
Legislation to enact that change, House Joint Resolution 1017, has already passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives on a 73-27 vote.
Shelton recently wrote about TSET spending, based on updated financial information.
That analysis can be viewed online here:
NOTE: Carter runs the Center for Independent Journalism. This story was first posted at the website of the Oklahoma Center of Public Affairs (OCPA).