SANTA ANA — Just two weeks after Orange County voters passed a measure directing that the county’s tobacco funds should go mostly for health care, the Board of Supervisors has decided to consider spending this year’s allotment to pay off government debt instead.
Supervisors previously voted to divide this year’s $28-million share of the national tobacco settlement funds, with half going toward health care programs and the remainder toward paying down the county’s bankruptcy debt.
Because Measure H, approved by 65 percent of the county’s voters on Nov. 7, doesn’t take effect until July, board Chairman Chuck Smith said Monday it is time to consider spending as much as possible now on debt reduction.
“We agreed to that 50-50 split long before the election, so I think – in light of that – it’s fair to reconsider it,” Smith said, noting that supervisors have one opportunity to spend the money as they choose.
“I’m not saying how much we should spend toward debt reduction,” he added. “We could make it 80 percent... But we need to fully look at this.”
Health care advocates, who raised nearly $1 million to support Measure H, said they were angered and surprised by the supervisors’ actions.
“They just don’t want to listen to the will of the people,” said Michele Revelle, spokeswoman for the Orange County Medical Association.
“This is exactly why we went forward with getting Measure H passed. They voted to give us 50 percent earlier and we didn’t like it then and now it looks like they’re going to renege on it.”
Supervisors on Monday also scheduled a closed-door meeting for Tuesday to debate whether they should go to court to fight Measure H.
The county will receive $28 million in tobacco settlement money this fiscal year and as much as $35 million in annual installments over the next quarter-century.
Measure H puts at least 80 percent of the money into health care programs for the poor.
The supervisors countered with an unsuccessful competing ballot initiative, Measure G, which would have put 60 percent of the money in various public health programs and dedicated the remainder to reducing debt and building jails.