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Lawmakers eye tobacco cash

First of two parts

With another sizable budget shortfall looming, and state agencies pleading for help, some Oklahoma lawmakers are turning hungrily to one of the state's biggest heaps of public cash.

The Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust, valued at $1.1 billion, has become a tempting target for legislators who want to redirect the flow of TSET funds to core state services not viewed by the agency as part of its mission. At least 10 bills have been filed for the upcoming legislative session that would channel TSET money to, among other things, health care for the poor, mental-health services and a pay raise for teachers.

But steep barriers stand in the way of the efforts.

The largest one is that 18 years ago TSET was created through a constitutional amendment approved by voters  a culmination of lawsuits filed by states against Big Tobacco to redress the health-care and human costs from lung cancer, emphysema, heart disease and other smoking-related illnesses. Another vote by Oklahomans would be required to alter the trust's mission or complexion.

Still, some lawmakers and advocacy groups are posing sharp questions about the trust fund's size and whether, in light of declining smoking rates and the agency's heavy spending on advertising, it should focus more on attacking general health problems rather than educating Oklahomans to adopt better habits.

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