Drew Edmondson

Drew Edmondson

Oklahoma Democratic gubernatorial candidate Drew Edmondson is ready to fight to keep money from the state’s Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust from going up in smoke.

That’s what Edmondson is convinced will happen if some state legislators succeed in an attempt to divert millions of dollars from the TSET trust into the state’s general fund. He’s concerned the approximately $1.13 billion in the TSET account and the $75 million annual payment the fund receives would soon be spent if lawmakers ever get their hands on it.

Edmondson, who recently traveled to McAlester for a campaign dinner at Pete’s Place in Krebs that drew supporters from as far away as Tulsa and Poteau, spoke with the News-Capital about a number of issues facing the state.

Among those concerning him is an attempt by some lawmakers to access the TSET money, which is currently set aside for things such as smoke cessation measures, research and other health-related matters. Edmondson would like to see the money continue to be used in that way.

Others want to allow state legislators to access the money.

“There’s been a bill introduced to siphon off 85 percent and put it in the general fund,” Edmondson said.

State Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore, is backing a measure that, if successful, would result in the annual $75 million payment going directly to the legislature.

Edmondson and others in state government at the time of the state’s settlement with the tobacco industry planned ahead for such a possibility. The measure that set up the current TSET funding mechanism was approved by voters via a state question making the provision part of the state Constitution.

It will take another constitutional amendment passed by a vote of the people to change it, Edmondson noted — and he doesn’t think the people of Oklahoma will agree to any attempt to place part of the money in the state’s general fund where it could be accessed by legislators for almost any purpose they want.

“The Constitution says where the money goes,” Edmondson said.

Edmondson was instrumental in helping win the tobacco settlement for Oklahoma, when, as the state’s attorney general, he filed a lawsuit against major tobacco companies in 1996 alleging predatory marketing and other practices. Forty-five other states had filed lawsuits by 1998, when four of the major tobacco companies agreed to a settlement.

Terms of the Master Settlement Agreement called for the states to receive annual payments from the tobacco industry for as long as cigarettes are sold at the national level. The companies were also forced to stop attempts to target youth and the industry was banned from utilizing cartoons and most types of outdoor advertising to promote tobacco.

With bipartisan support at the time, Oklahoma voters passed a state question to amend the state Constitution and approve creation of the state’s Oklahoma Settlement Endowment Trust to protect money the state received from the settlement.

“We created the Tobacco Trust in 2000,” Edmondson said. Thanks to the voters who passed the measure in the form of a state question in 2000, Oklahoma became the first state to protect its TSET settlement funds by placing 75 percent of the funds into a constitutional trust fund, with the legislature receiving 18.75 percent for its Tobacco Settlement Fund and the remaining 6.25 percent designated to the Oklahoma attorney general’s office for continued enforcement of the Tobacco Settlement Agreement.

Any move to change that would also have to be approved by a statewide vote of the people to amend the state Constitution once more — something Edmondson doesn’t think the state’s voters will buy.

“There will be a hill to climb,” Edmondson said. “My hope is the (House) speaker will put it in committee and it will never come out.”

But if the measure does become a state question, Edmondson said “They’ll have a fight on their hands when it gets on the ballot.” Edmondson believes Oklahoma voters will have more confidence in the TSEP Board members than they will have in state legislators when it comes to administering the funds.

On another health-related issue, Edmondson said as governor he would opt into the Medicaid expansion program. He said Gov. Mary Fallin’s decision for Oklahoma to opt out of it has not only deprived the state of millions of dollars in federal Medicaid funding, but that it’s left “200,000 of our citizens without coverage that would be covered if we accepted expansion.”

That would also directly play into the ability of some hospitals to keep their doors open, Edmondson said. “Some rural hospitals don’t know if they will be able to make payroll at the end of the month.”

Speaking of education, Edmondson said “It’s also underfunded and suffering. We’re losing our best and our brightest.”

Edmondson continues to maintain that the state would have more money money to fund education as well as other areas if the state would raise its gross production tax on the oil and gas industry.

He noted there’s been talk among some Republicans about raising it from 2 to 4 percent and some Democrats are talking about raising it to at least 5 percent.

“I think it ought to go back to 7 percent like it was,”Edmondson said.

He said there had been a good reason to lower the gross production tax rate in the state when horizontal drilling and fracking were in the experimental stages. Now, it’s commonly used in the industry, he noted.

“It’s not a new procedure any more,” he said.

“Bless their hearts, they make billions of dollars,” Edmondson said of the oil and gas industry.

Edmondson, who said he spent three and one-half years in the U.S. Navy and is a Vietnam veteran, believes his experience gives him insight into issues affecting military veterans and he said he’s concerned about the quality of their care.

“I think some of our veterans centers have been underfunded,” Edmondson said. He said the government will underfund a facility and then complain about its quality.

“I have been to the Talihina Veterans Center and I want to keep it open,” Edmondson said. “I think they’re doing a tremendous job there.”

Prior to the time Edmondson served as attorney general, he served as a district attorney whose district included Muskogee County.

“I’m certainly proud of my law enforcement background, both as DA and attorney general,” Edmondson said. His also thinks his law enforcement experience has given him insight into how the state’s resources could best be utilized. He maintains the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services should be funded at the level it needs to provide additional treatment.

Edmondson contends the state should put more into treatment for substance abusers as opposed to locking them up in prison.

“First, it’s the right thing to do,” he said. Secondly, it can cost from $20,000-to-$30,000 to pay for incarcerating someone for a year, as opposed to $3,000-from-$5,000 for treatment, he continued.

Referring to incarceration, Edmondson said “It should be reserved for those who are dangerous and not for those we have lost patience with.”

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com

Contact James Beaty by email at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com.

James Beaty is senior editor at the McAlester News-Capital