JEFFERSON CITY - The pot of gold at the end of Missouri's tobacco rainbow is getting little public attention from candidates for Missouri office.
When asked, candidates mention education, cancer research and prescription drugs as some of the ideas for spending Missouri's estimated $6.7 billion tobacco settlement money. Four candidates volunteered the option of sending the issue to the voters.
Many legislators argue that voter approval is required to exempt the money from the Hancock spending lid that triggers refunds of excess taxes to Missouri taxpayers.
Gubernatorial candidate and state treasurer Bob Holden proposes all the money be used for health care initiatives, arguing that the tobacco money should go toward the health care system that cigarettes have damaged over the years.
Specifically, Holden's priorities would include smoking prevention programs, a prescription drug plan and funding for hospitals providing a disproportionate amount of care for the indigent - particularly teaching hospitals.
Patrick Lynn, director of policy for the Holden campaign, said a referendum on any plan should be presented to voters to prevent having the money tied up indefinitely in court.
Holden's opponent, U.S. Rep. Jim Talent, does not propose earmarking the money for specific programs. His campaign spokesman said Talent doesn't want to limit the tobacco money to health care issues alone.
"If they're good ideas if you've got the tobacco money, they're also good ideas if you don't have the tobacco money," said Talent spokesperson Michele Dimarob.
Dimarob said the settlement money would be applied the same as any other funds with emphasis on Talent's priorities - education and methampethamine prevention.
Joe Maxwell, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, opposes this sort of open-ended spending and said the state must have a plan before the money rolls in.
"I feel strongly that this money doesn't find its way into the general revenue fund," he said. "Once this money comes in the state and winds up in the budget, it's too late to figure out how the money should be spent."
Maxwell has already figured out how he feels the money should be spent.
"We must remember the tobacco settlement dollars are a return to the Missouri taxpayers for previously paid health care costs. All of these dollars should go toward health care of some type," he said.
Expanding the state's prescription drug plan for seniors and funding a tobacco cessation campaign aimed at teenager would be Maxwell's top priorities.
His GOP opponent for lieutenant governor, Wendell Bailey, said he was willing to consider all options discussed in the last legislative session and has no priorities.
A spokesperson for state treasurer candidate Nancy Farmer said Farmer had no position on the issue. Her opponent Todd Graves, however, said he believes that the money should be spent on health initiatives citing personal reasons for his views.
A cancer survivor at 21, Graves went to Houston, Texas, for treatment because Missouri didn't have a top-level cancer treatment facility. Graves said Missouri was one of the largest states without one, a situation he said he would like to see changed.
"This money was collected for health reasons, and I would like to see a significant amount go toward that, specifically cancer research," he said, adding that any action would require a statewide vote.
The Republican candidate for Secretary of State, Matt Blunt agreed with Graves on the need to put the question to a vote.
"Every question related to the tobacco money, including if it should be included as part of the total state revenue for purposes of the Hancock Amendment, should be put on a ballot and presented to the voters," Blunt said.
Democratic secretary of state candidate Steve Gaw said the money should go into a trust fund that can't be accessed without a vote of the people.
Gaw said he preference would be that the money go toward health care, which was the reason behind the tobacco lawsuit.
"My general belief is that these funds ought to be dedicated to health care access, part oriented to senior citizen prescription drug costs and to those who can't find affordable health insurance, for tobacco cessation and education programs and investments in early childhood education and research into diseases such as cancer," Gaw said.
Gaw, Missouri's House Speaker, had sponsored unsuccessful legislation for a public vote to ear-mark the tobacco funds.
Republican Attorney General candidate Sam Jones said he believed it must be decided if the money falls under the Hancock amendment before any plans can be made. He said he has no doubt the money is part of the total state revenue, but would not necessarily trigger the Hancock amendment.
As Attorney General, Jay Nixon has said publicly that he supports using at least a portion of the money for smoking prevention programs, especially among teens.
Nixon's spokesperson Scott Holste said the main concern of the attorney general now was actually getting the money. The state has thus far been unable to collect its portion of the settlement money because of lawsuits seeking to prevent the state from settling its own lawsuit against big tobacco companies.
Under the $206 billion national settlement, all states must first drop their lawsuits before they can collect.
Until then, $190 million sits in an escrow account, off-limits to all Missouri politicians.