Editorial: Offset cuts with tobacco money

Today, Florida’s legislators will begin the grueling task of balancing the state’s shrinking budget. Education, transportation and health are just a sample of the areas that will feel the squeeze.

Florida and other states are looking beyond cutting budgets and into reserves such as tobacco. The national tobacco settlement of $206 billion that was given to states in 1998 is looking tempting to state governments as they scramble for ways to balance the budget.

Ohio Gov. Bob Taft plans to borrow about $100 million from the state’s tobacco settlement. Other states, such as Missouri and Montana, have already dipped into their states’ tobacco funds, and Florida may be next.

Tapping into the tobacco reserves is a wiser choice than sacrificing the education of elementary, high school and college students.

Florida’s lawmakers need to consider borrowing money from the tobacco settlement. By doing this, it could alleviate the amount of money taken from Florida’s public universities.

Anti-smoking groups are not pleased with states already shifting the money. They say the money is needed to keep future generations of kids from smoking. But according to a report by the National Conference of State Legislatures, only 6.3 percent, or $1.3 million, is being utilized for tobacco education in 14 states. And in 40 states, only 5 percent, or $1 million, is being used for tobacco prevention programs.

While these programs are important, Florida’s public education system is in a state of crisis, and legislators need to realize the potential of dipping into the tobacco reserves.

The preliminary estimate of 5 percent budget cuts would hit Florida’s public universities with $119 million in cuts. USF is already set to lose more than $14 million. And now, the percentage is inching higher as the House and Senate debate what the final numbers will be.

Tobacco education and prevention programs are relevant programs, but education is more so.