By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Report
MONTGOMERY—Children First Foundation accuses Governor and Senator Orr of putting prisoner’s welfare above that of State’s little ones.
“Governor Bentley and Senator Orr, through recent actions, have demonstrated how they care more about prisoners’ wellbeing than that of our children.” This according to the Children First Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization whose stated goal is, “improving the lives of Alabama’s children and families.”
Senator Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) is the Chair of the powerful Finance and Taxation General Fund Committee. At issue are funds that are believed to be released soon from the Master Settlement Agreement between the States and big tobacco companies – an estimated $48 million dollars.
For the last six years the tobacco companies have withheld a portion of Alabama’s Master Settlement Agreement dollars according to Children First’s Executive Director, Christy Mehaffey. She says that by statute these funds are earmarked when they come into Alabama and are split between the Children First Trust Fund, Medicaid and other small initiatives.
However, this year under the guidance of Governor Bentley and Senator Orr, this one time disbursement of funds from the tobacco settlement will not go to the Children First Trust Fund (CFTF) but instead will be use to plug a hole in Alabama’s General Fund Budget.
According to Mehaffey the CFTF would receive around $22 million through this one time infusion of money but, “Bentley and Orr are now moving to intercept these dollars and move them into the General Fund,” she said.
The Children First Trust Fund was initiated in the mid 1990s by a group of advocates and legislators who wanted to improve the lives of children in Alabama. At the end of the legislative session in 1998, a portion of the state’s tobacco settlement funds (approx 46%) are supposed to go into the CFTF.
All the money that is allocated to the Children First Trust Fund must be spent directly on the state’s children. According to Mehaffey, the agencies who receive CFTF money cannot use it to buy new equipment, cars or operational expenses, it all must go toward the children they serve. “They have to present a plan of investment each year before the funds are released and they have to report at the end of each year how many children and families they served – no other state dollars are more transparent or accountable,” says Mehaffey.
Under Orr’s method of distributing the one time dollars from the tobacco companies agencies could use the money however they see fit. “That will be up to the discretion of the agency. It gives them the flexibility to make the decision and determine as to whether these routinely Children First programs are going to be supported,” said Orr, “What she [Mehaffey] is arguing for is extra funding, based on the $48 million, on top of the routine funding.
Mehaffey, seems to take exception with Orr’s characterization saying that Children First Trust Fund is set up by statute to fund children’s services. She says these funds over the last six years have been withheld from the agencies and now that the arbitration is expected to be concluded any funds released by law should go to children.
Orr, counters by saying, “There’s an old saying: “If the phone don’t, ring you’ll know it’s me.” My phone has not been ringing from agencies saying this money is paramount because of the programs that they fund.”
Mehaffey points out that last year the State raided the oil and gas trust fund to fund the prisons in Alabama and this year they are taking money away from children’s programs to give another $20 million to the Department of Corrections. “Whenever times are hard for families and jobs, the very people who are effected the most are the children,” she said, questioning why the Governor and Senator Orr are putting the priorities of inmates before the children.
Mehaffey says she understands that Orr and the Governor are trying to balance the budget, “which I know is very challenging.” But she does not believe that it should be balanced on the back of our most vulnerable citizens, the children.
Children First Foundation nor its two employee receive any money from the Children First Trust “We don’t get any of the money, not a dime of it,” said Mehaffey, “we are simply in these legislative halls to represent Alabama’s most important special interest – our children.”