A group of Louisiana state senators want the Legislature to dedicate half the state’s estimated $ 4.4 billion tobacco settlement money to schools–and use it, in part, to buy technology.

The proposed constitutional amendment would create trust funds for each of the state’s 66 school systems with half of the money divided equally and half distributed on the basis of student populations.

The plan would endow the systems with big savings accounts from which they could spend only the annual earnings for needs such as improving technology, hiring more teachers to reduce class sizes, arts and health programs, and after-school tutoring programs.

The proposal is being co-sponsored by Sens. Foster Campbell, D-Elm Grove; Jim Cox, D-Lake Charles; Donald Cravins, D-Lafayette; Max Jordan, R-Lafayette; Ron Landry, D-LaPlace, and Max Malone, R-Shreveport.

“We cannot sit by and watch what is likely to be our last major windfall wasted,” Campbell said. “What better use could we make of this money than to endow our school systems with savings accounts that will serve current and future generations?”

In a similar move, Louisiana last year spent funds from a settlement with an oil company on distance learning and graphing calculators. All in all, the state spent $37.1 million on technology in 1998 and will spend $25 million in 1999. Nearly all the funds came from surplus money in the state’s general fund, according to Education Week’s “Technology Counts” report.

Tobacco coughs up settlement

The proposal likely will kick up a fight in the Legislature. Gov. Mike Foster wants to sell the tobacco settlement for an upfront sum and use the money to pay off state debt, thus freeing up about $ 250 million a year to spend on other things.

Attorney General Richard Ieyoub, who filed the state’s product liability lawsuit against the tobacco companies, wants the money spent on health care, such as cancer research.

The basis of the lawsuit was that tobacco company executives knew they were marketing an addictive product that cost the state money in providing health care for smoking-related diseases.

Ieyoub is not opposed to funding education, but he said spending a majority on health care could save thousands of lives.

“My only concern is before we designate ways the money will be spent, we need to be sure we are, in fact, going to receive the entire $ 4.4 billion that has been forecast,” Ieyoub said.

Only the first seven years of payments–ranging from $144 million to $160 million–are firm amounts. The remainder–from $ 161 million from 2008 to 2017 and $ 180.5 million from 2018 to 2025–are estimates.

The actual amounts will be determined by the total nationwide sales of tobacco products during those years.

Malone said the trust funds would have a heavy impact on poorer, smaller parishes like Red River, which pays teachers the minimum.

“A lot of these school systems can’t get the resources they need,” Malone said. “We’ve got to help education as much as we can.”

Louisiana State Legislature