Miss. Supreme Court to hear arguments in Partnership case

By JACK ELLIOTT JR.

Associated Press Writer

JACKSON - The Mississippi Supreme Court will hear arguments March 26 in a lawsuit brought to cut off funding to a tobacco cessation and education program.

Lawyers for the Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi and Gov. Haley Barbour will square off before the court during a hearing in Jackson.

Barbour, Medicaid and the Mississippi Health Care Trust Fund are appealing a September 2006 ruling by Jackson County Chancellor Jaye Bradley that the Partnership didn't have to give back any of the money it had received during the previous 5-1/2 years.

In October 2006, the Supreme Court ordered the Partnership to stop spending money until the court decided the legality of $20 million in annual payments to the private, nonprofit anti-tobacco group.

Barbour and others contend the payments to the Partnership are illegal.

Mississippi in 1997 settled its lawsuit against the tobacco industry, which was filed to recover public costs of treating sick smokers. The Partnership was created later as a pilot program using separate payments from cigarette makers.

When the money for the pilot program ran out, then-Attorney General Mike Moore who filed the tobacco lawsuit obtained a December 2000 court order from Bradley that directed part of Mississippi's annual settlement payments to the Partnership.

The appeal of Bradley's September ruling has broken no new legal ground. Barbour and others say the millions of dollars in payments to the Partnership are illegal and any money coming from the tobacco lawsuit settlement can be allocated only by the Legislature.

The chairman of the Partnership's board is Moore, a Democrat who made national headlines in the 1990s by making Mississippi the first state to sue tobacco companies over the costs of treating sick smokers.

Barbour, a Republican who lobbied for tobacco companies in Washington before winning the governorship in 2003, filed a lawsuit in 2005 to challenge the legality of Bradley's December 2000 court order that directed $20 million a year to the Partnership.

In May 2006, Bradley overturned her 2000 ruling, saying that lawmakers, not a court, should decide how the money is spent. The ruling stopped the payments to the Partnership.

Mississippi is collecting about $4 billion over 25 years in its tobacco lawsuit settlement, with most of the money going to the Health Care Trust Fund, which was established by the Legislature and pays for a variety of programs.

The Partnership has sponsored a wide range of activities, including smoking-cessation programs and anti-tobacco ad campaigns. The group also hires school nurses and funds groups such as 4-H clubs.

The past few months, the Partnership has been running a skeleton program, with fewer offerings and a reduced staff.

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