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HomeNewsArchivesTOBACCO SETTLEMENT TO BE SUBJECT OF PUBLIC HEARINGS

TOBACCO SETTLEMENT TO BE SUBJECT OF PUBLIC HEARINGS

The 23rd Legislature has decided to hold public hearings on a proposed bill which would alter the allocation formula for the multi-million dollar tobacco settlement fund.
The move will pose a challenge to unions representing Virgin Islands government workers, who were slated to get half the settlement via the Union Arbitration Awards Fund.
Sen. Allie-Allison Petrus is sponsoring the measure, which would reduce the percentage designated for the union fund.
Petrus, who chairs the Senate Committee on Health, said Tuesday that while the unions need money to pay retroactive wages, there are more pressing concerns in the Health Department.
"Right now, there is a situation where a lot of people are being diagnosed with cancer and we need to concentrate our efforts on early detection," he said, citing one of several areas where he said money is desperately needed.
"This measure is about placing the funds from this settlement where they rightly belong," said Petrus.
His proposal would allocate 37.5 percent of the settlement to the Health Revolving Fund; 21.25 percent to each territorial hospital and just 20 percent to the Union Arbitration Award and Increment Fund.
Using the tobacco-settlement monies for health-related issues would be more consistent with the intent of the successful lawsuits against "big tobacco," said Petrus.
The territory will not necessarily try to leverage the tobacco settlement monies for more readily available cash, the senator said, although under his proposal that option would be available.
"These are guaranteed monies for the territory over the next 25 years and therefore could be used for early detection of terminal disease or as leverage against bonds floated for various projects in the territory. There are a lot of options," Petrus said.
The finance committee chairwoman, Sen. Lorraine Berry, said the hearings will be held Feb. 8 and 9 in St. Thomas and St. Croix respectively, beginning each day at 10 a.m. The request for public hearings came from civic groups including the American Association of Retired Persons, the American Lung Association and the League of Women Voters.
As might be expected, the initial reaction from a union leader was negative, with a promise of political consequences. Glen J. Smith, who heads the teachers union on St. Thomas, said he heard of Petrus's proposal with "horror and anger and a general disdain for those who seek to take away from the workers."
Noting that the AARP is lobbying strongly in favor of the proposal, Smith said, "Petrus appears more interested in the votes of the senior community compared to the support of thousands of government workers in both districts. Those who take this position risk the political support of thousands of government workers."
The union leader said there were good reasons for spending the tobacco settlement funds as proposed, and there should be the commitment to unionized government workers to find an alternative source of funding for retroactive pay.

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