Budget borrowing could be harmful to your health, advocates say

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – To tax or not to tax Marcellus Shale drillers and natural gas customers?

That will be the will be the headline-grabbing and hotly contested question at the state House in coming weeks. Tax increases are still an uncertainty.

But what seems likely, perhaps a done deal, is that lawmakers will borrow more than $1 billion against the Tobacco Settlement Fund to fill last year’s budget hole.

“The American Lung Association is worried that somehow borrowing against this money will shortchange the people of Pennsylvania,” said Ewa Dworakowski, an  American Lung Association spokeswoman.

The ALA uses settlement money to fund programs that help adult smokers quit and teach kids not to start in the first place. The ALA hopes lawmakers will look elsewhere for budgetary cash.

“What they’re saying – lawmakers – is that 22,000 people in Pennsylvania who die from smoking every year don’t matter,” Dworakowski said.

Though exact details of how the borrowing would work are still unclear, Dworakowski insists any plan will jeopardize the funding.

She’s not alone in that belief.

“It does make us nervous,” said Diane Phillips of the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network.

She says the funding and the programs are necessary because Pennsylvania’s smoking rates are above the national average. In Pennsylvania, 18 percent of adults smoke, according to Phillips. Across the U.S., it’s 15 percent.

“What we know is where funding has gone away for these programs, smoking rates increased,” Phillips said.

Even Governor Tom Wolf,  who would ultimately have to approve any borrowing plan, has misgivings.

“There are a number of programs funded by the tobacco settlement that would be jeopardized by securitizing that and using that,” Wolf said Friday, “so I think that’s something I continue to be sensitive to and aware of and I continue to look at that.”

More than the aforementioned taxes, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-Centre) said he’s most bothered by the borrowing.

“But be very clear,” Corman said following the budget vote Thursday. “It was either that or a personal income tax increase, and there clearly was no votes for a personal income tax increase.”

So healthcare advocates will be watching as the borrowing details emerge. They’ve been promised by legislators that their program funding will not be cut as a result. But they also know that budget-time promises can disappear like a wisp of smoke.

“The health of the public should really come first when you’re looking at a budget and how to fill the gap,” Dworakowski said. “What the legislature is looking at doing is a one-time fix that harms the public health.”Get breaking news, weather and traffic on the go. Download our News App and our Weather App for your phone and tablet.

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