OKLAHOMA CITY — The governor is trying to gauge whether Oklahomans support changing the state’s billion-dollar tobacco settlement endowment fund.

At his recent Top Ten Cabinet Tour in Woodward, Gov. Kevin Stitt’s team handed out a health care survey that included a question about TSET, the public trust that’s funded by tobacco industry settlements.

The survey asked if the public would support a state question that either:

— Caps the amount of settlement money going into the endowment and redirects millions in settlement funds toward rural health care.

• Dissolves the trust and redirects all funds to other health crises.

• Or leaves it alone.

Baylee Lakey, a Stitt spokeswoman, said the governor is trying to measure general opinion. She said he gets asked about it often.

“Currently, there is no agenda behind changing the format of TSET,” she said.

However, this isn’t the first time state leaders have flirted with the idea of changing TSET to increase legislative spending access. But altering how the fund is allocated would require a ballot measure to change the state’s Constitution.

While other states quickly burned through their settlements, Oklahomans were fearful lawmakers would squander their sudden windfall. Voters opted to lock the money away from the Legislature’s grasp so it would be used to promote health for future generations.

With almost two decades having passed since the 1998 settlement, nearly $1.2 billion sits in the account.

Last year, Oklahoma received about $69.8 million — its share of the cigarettes sold in the United States.

Of that, the Legislature received about $13.1 million to spend. The attorney general received $4.4 million. The rest went into the endowment.

TSET, which manages the fund, spends the annual earnings on a variety of programs. These promote public health, tobacco cessation efforts, obesity reduction, cancer research and physician training in rural areas.

State Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore, said he’d like to see the TSET issue put on the ballot. He’d like to preserve the endowment and TSET but reallocate the earnings to other health needs like rural health care access or medical programs, such as nursing schools. He said he previously authored a bill that would have spent $30 million in TSET funds for school nurses.

“I think it’s time to look at that (trust) and see if we could spend the money in some better ways,” he said. “I’ve always thought that we could make some changes, put more to health rather than all the advertising, ink pens, bags and trinkets they’ve had made.”

But he said changing TSET’s format has “been a tough battle.”

“As far as the Legislature goes, the appetite has not been there,” McBride said.

There are a lot of misconceptions about TSET, said Julie Bisbee, its executive director. The agency’s budget is $49.7 million.

Officials do not dip into the endowment, and the annual earnings in budget year 2018 were $65.2 million, she said.

Bisbee said her agency is funding doctors in rural areas and partnering with Oklahoma State University to underwrite residency training.

“At the same time, I don’t think you can ignore the importance of preventative programs and how it alleviates the stress on the health care system,” Bisbee said.

But Jonathan Small, president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative-leaning think tank, said there are much better ways to use TSET’s assets than the “very small scale, pork-style projects” that TSET funds in communities. Those have included subsidizing a boathouse program in Oklahoma City and paying for billboards encouraging people to drink water, he said.

Small said he supports either dissolving TSET or capping its funding. He said it makes no sense to keep the program in its current state.

“There’s no reason why such a significant amount of funding would be spent on a tourist attraction in Oklahoma City (rather) than producing the next generation of physicians who would treat Oklahomans,” Small said.

He said increasing health care access — particularly in rural Oklahoma — should be a priority.

“(It’s) a good solution to start to rebuild providers,” Small said. “We should spend a lot more money providing scholarships to people who serve in rural areas.”

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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