As Oklahoma lawmakers look for more money to fund education and other core services, some are again pointing to the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust.
TSET’s $1.1 billion in assets have been a popular target in Oklahoma’s down budget years, especially among those who criticize the trust’s spending on healthy lifestyle grants and programs. Morton Health CEO Susan Savage said dipping into those reserves is short-sighted.
"I think we need to view it as a resource for how we make Oklahomans healthier and not as a way to backfill the budget," Savage said.
Justin Wood with the American Cancer Society said those healthy living programs are a form of tobacco prevention.
"If you’re choosing to run in a park or you’re choosing to eat healthy, you’re taking advantage of these different initiatives that TSET does, you’re also choosing not to smoke," Wood said. "I mean, it doesn’t make any sense to spend money on cigarettes whenever you’re spending so much money on living healthy."
Tulsa Health Department CEO Dr. Bruce Dart said TSET’s healthy living funding supports local initiatives that have helped lower obesity rates and improve health rankings.
"And if we don’t have the ability to do that, the data’s going to trend back up, and you know, the last thing I think Oklahomans and Tulsa County can afford is to see our health metrics decrease, especially after we’re finally improving," Dart said.
TSET’s funds are constitutionally protected, so Oklahomans must vote on any changes. Lawmakers have said a resolution to put TSET changes on the ballot this year will not be heard.