Fewer cigarette sales cut into First Five funding

January 17, 2012 6:53:14 PM PST
A state commission that runs several programs helping children from infants through 5 years old is being threatened by a loss of funding. The First Five California program is paid for through cigarette taxes. The good news is that fewer people are smoking, but the tax drop is huge.

California is one of two states to reach the federal target of 12 percent for adult smoking rates. However, the good news comes with a price.

The Sacramento Crisis Nursery is just one of numerous programs statewide under First Five California that benefits from an extra 50-cent tax on cigarettes, which voters approved in 1998 under Proposition 10. The money funds health and education services for very young children.

"We provide emergency daycare and emergency overnight care for children ages 0 to 5 whose parents are experiencing a crisis," said program director Suzi Dotson.

But the First Five Commission has to face reality. The adult smoking rate in California is at an all time low at just 11.9 percent, meaning with fewer cigarettes being sold, kids programs are not getting as much money from the tax. The balance sheet forecast is $79 million by 2014 -- that's nearly a $40 million drop in just eight years. The state budget is hardly in a position to make up the difference.

"We'll be looking at ways to stretch a depleted budget to try to protect children," Assembly Health Committee Chairman, Assm. Bill Monning, D-Santa Cruz.

Fiscal conservatives say the state shouldn't bail out First Five because Prop 10 supporters knew the day would come when smoking cessation programs would be successful.

"It would look like the proponents achieved their purpose to get people to stop smoking," said Assm. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber. "So now they have to live with it."

When the cigarette tax passed, lawmakers moved several kids programs away from the unpredictable state budget and into the more stable First Five. Now some regret it.

"We really probably should have never pulled general fund funding from these services to create the situation we're in now," said Assm. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles.

First Five programs are nervous that fewer smokers could mean cuts to their services and turning away children.

"Considering the kind of children that we see and the situations that we see, it would defintely be... it's very hard to imagine," said Dotson.

All 58 counties are expected to send representatives to Sacramento this week to discuss the funding drop. It will be a chance to talk about solutions.

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