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Nonprofits nervously watch tobacco settlement fund

Allyn Harvey
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Local health and human service nonprofits are looking to Denver nervously this week, as the state Legislature works on a budget for the upcoming year.

A proposal to shift money from the state’s share of the national Tobacco Settlement Fund from health programs into transportation and other areas is of particular concern, say officials at nonprofit health and human service organizations.

Groups like the Valley Partnership for Drug Prevention in Aspen and the Family Visitor Program in Glenwood Springs are likely to lose funding if the shift is made. Mountain Valley Developmental Services, which works with developmentally disabled residents and their families, is also facing cuts.

Mountain Valley director Bruce Christensen said the budget proposals have been changing so rapidly that he can’t guess what will actually happen. But under recent budget plans, his organization would fare badly.

“Some programs would be cut that are important to the families we serve,” he said.

Legislators in Denver are scrambling to fill a budget shortfall for fiscal year 2004 estimated at more than $850 million.

The situation is a result of a combination of declining sales tax revenues and the amendment to the state constitution known as TABOR that bars legislators from raising sales or other taxes without voter approval.

The fact that the state government cannot raise taxes means it has had to find the money elsewhere to pay for everything from road maintenance and schools to prisons and assistance for nonprofits.

By tapping the Tobacco Settlement Fund money, the Legislature hopes to gain $88 million for next year’s budget, according to a legislative report from Colorado Children’s Campaign, a group that works on behalf of programs that promote children’s health.

The Tobacco Settlement Fund was set up after several states sued cigarette manufacturers for the cost of treating residents crippled by smoking. Each state has the ability to choose how it spends the money. Colorado has diverted much of its share to nonprofits in the area of health and human services.

“I know that a bunch of nonprofits are preparing to lose that money,” said state Sen. Ken Chlouber, R-Leadville. “We’ve got about $850 million to make up, and there’s just no where to get it.”

Nan Sundeen, Pitkin County’s director of health and human services, said Valley Partnership for Drug Abuse depends on annual contributions from the tobacco settlement for a significant share of its budget.

The Family Visitor Program is less reliant on the state’s tobacco money, but it has seen more than $120,000 of promised funding taken away this year, said the group’s executive director, Sandy Swanson.

The money was committed to pay for a program that allows registered nurses to work with young, financially struggling mothers. The nurses begin working with the mothers when they are pregnant and continue visiting them until the child is 2 years old.

The 15-year-old Nurse Home Visitor Program, currently running in 64 counties, has been proven to drastically reduce crime and abuse. It’s estimated that the state government saves $4 in health- and court-related costs for every $1 invested in the visitor program.

A study of the program’s effectiveness showed that it reduced the number of criminal convictions of both mothers and children who participate, by 79 percent and 69 percent, respectively. The program has also been shown to reduce smoking in pregnant mothers by 28 percent.

“That program may disappear off the face of the Earth tomorrow,” Swanson said.

The attempt to get it started in Garfield County has been crippled by cuts this year. The state initially pledged $400,000 a year to pay for the program. That support has since been cut back to $77,000, to pay for two nurses.

“In 20 years, I don’t think I’ve seen it this bad,” Swanson said. “It’s starting to affect everybody in Colorado, except for roads and prisons.”

[Allyn Harvey’s e-mail address is aharvey@aspentimes.com]


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