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Children’s advocates sue Kansas AG over tobacco money report

Updated: 2013-05-11T00:05:54Z

By JOHN HANNA

The Associated Press

— A children's advocacy group went to court Friday in hopes of forcing Kansas' attorney general to disclose information about how much the state can expect in tobacco settlement funds as lawmakers consider how to spend those dollars.

Kansas Action for Children filed a petition in Shawnee County District Court, accusing Attorney General Derek Schmidt of violating the state's Open Records Act. The group wants Schmidt's office to release an accounting firm's report on revisions to a 1998 legal settlement between states, including Kansas, and tobacco companies.

But Schmidt spokesman Don Brown said the attorney general's office will release the report “when we determine that it can lawfully be released.”

Brown added, “We will continue to provide information in a timely and accurate manner as required by the Kansas Open Records Act.”

In late April, Republican Gov. Sam Brownback predicted that the revisions would boost the state's tobacco settlement funds, and he asked legislators to use $9.5 million worth on general government programs, rather than keeping the dollars in a special fund used for children's programs. Four days later, Schmidt, also a Republican, announced that Kansas had received nearly $68 million in tobacco settlement funds for the current fiscal year, or almost $13 million more than anticipated.

Kansas Action for Children expects the accounting firm's report on the settlement changes to spell out the state's share of tobacco settlement funds over the next five years. The group wants to see those funds dedicated to children's programs, and Shannon Costsoradis, its president and chief executive officer, said both the legislators and the public need to know how much money will be available.

State law specifies that tobacco settlement dollars are deposited in the Kansas Endowment for Youth Fund, and Brownback's budget proposals previously had assumed declining revenues. Kansas Action for Children opposes Brownback's plan to use unanticipated tobacco funds for general government programs as “raiding” children's programs.

Lawmakers must settle the issue in finishing work on the next state budget, and they hope to wrap up their business for the year next week.

“Time is of the essence,” Costsoradis said during an interview. “We couldn't afford to wait while there was any foot-dragging.”

The revisions to the 1998 legal settlement resolve claims from tobacco companies that some states, including Kansas, weren't living up to their obligations. A panel of three retired federal judges, serving as arbitrators, ruled in March, and Schmidt's office has released the panel's decision.

But the decision doesn't give figures for the tobacco funds each state would receive. On May 1, the day after Schmidt released the decision, Kansas Action for Children filed an Open Records request, seeking the accounting firm's report and emails on the issue. A week later, the group narrowed its request to the accountants' report.

In its filing in court Friday, the group contends that Schmidt's office had the report when the request was filed, was therefore obligated to release it immediately and has no grounds under the Open Records Act to keep it from the public.

“The public interest in this matter is paramount,” the group's filing said, adding that Schmidt's “stalling tactic” was “politically motivated.”

But Brown said the decision issued by the three arbitrators in March still faces legal challenges and future payments of tobacco funds to Kansas are “undetermined” because they're based on companies' sales “and other events that have not yet occurred.”

Follow John Hanna on Twitter at www.twitter.com/apjdhanna.

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