CHELSEA — Much of the discussion and debate among legislators these days surrounds Gov. LePage’s budget proposal, with the lion’s share of the media attention focused on members of the Appropriations Committee. After all, they’re the ones who will decide how the state’s limited resources are allocated.

One of the most contentious pieces of the governor’s budget is his proposal to redirect $10 million annually from the Fund for a Healthy Maine to maintain reimbursement rates for primary care physicians under the state’s MaineCare program. A seemingly never-ending parade of advocacy groups has since descended on the State House to tell the Appropriations Committee why the panel needs to continue funding their existence.

For those who don’t know, the Fund for a Healthy Maine is the result of a lawsuit filed against the tobacco industry and nets the state of Maine roughly $52 million to $54 million annually. A large portion of these funds is supposed to be targeted at smoking-cessation efforts and anti-substance abuse and anti-obesity initiatives through vehicles that include the Healthy Maine Partnerships.

Healthy Maine Partnerships propaganda touts, among other “milestone achievements,” the fact that 42 percent of day care centers posted signs indicating that the grounds were smoke-free. I was curious why they would be trumpeting a number that, in my opinion, was 58 percent shy of the target mark.

Healthy Maine Partnerships funds have become the holy grail to Democrats in the Legislature, who have historically fought to ensure the money is funneled to the same black holes year after year.

But I’ve heard reports that shed some light on how some of these funds are – and, equally as important, are not – being spent.

n A Maine middle school wanted to use Healthy Maine Partnerships money to purchase what is known as a “smoking doll,” which contains removable filters to demonstrate for students the tar and particulate matter that builds up in a smoker’s lungs. They were told they could not use the money for that.

Perplexed but undeterred, they suggested spending the money on mini-texts to be used in health classes to help reinforce the dangers of smoking. They were told that the money could not be used for that, either. How about instructional videos and/or software focused on the ills of tobacco use? Nope. Smoking-cessation classes for the staff? No.

What finally passed muster? Subway sandwiches for staff meetings.

n A school district was annually awarded $15,000 from Healthy Maine Partnerships to spend on “health-related items.” One principal in the district volunteered to monitor the grant money, which he originally planned to spend on anti-smoking signage.

This particular campus had a strict “no tobacco” policy already in place, developed by the district school board in consultation with the Maine School Management Association and an attorney.

Administrators at Healthy Maine Partnerships demanded that the district change its policy to match their language. The school board refused, as it already had a strict policy and had no intention of wasting time and money creating a whole new policy to appease an outside organization with no authority over the district.

Healthy Maine Partnerships officials chose to play hardball and refused to provide the signage for the district. The school district continued with its current policy and bought its own “No Smoking” signs.

“Three years later (Healthy Maine Partnerships) sent the signs up, saying they weren’t doing much good sitting on a shelf. I agreed, thanked them, and we put the signs up,” the district’s former superintendent said.

Above all, in light of the debate surrounding welfare abuse and the push to create measures of accountability for both recipients and providers, we cannot forget to also hold accountable those who administer anti-smoking and other health initiatives like the Healthy Maine Partnerships. When resources are limited, every penny needs to be spent effectively toward targeted initiatives – not toward a free lunch.

— Special to the Press Herald