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GORSKI RENEWS CALL FOR SHARE OF TOBACCO SETTLEMENT

Heartened by legal smoke signals from California, County Executive Gorski is renewing his demand that counties share any proceeds from the state's lawsuit against the tobacco industry.

California last week agreed to split with its counties whatever money it nets from anti-tobacco litigation.

That pact, Gorski said in a letter to State Attorney General Dennis C. Vacco, set a precedent that should be followed by New York, where he and fellow county executives have argued that any tobacco settlement or court award ought to be split 50-50 between the state and the counties.

"I cannot imagine why New York would treat its counties any differently than has California," Gorski wrote.

His claim is based on New York's Medicaid formula, which requires counties to pay half the bill for treating smoking-related illnesses. New York is one of the few states that require counties to contribute to the cost of Medicaid.

In 1997, before the state entered the legal fight against big tobacco companies, Erie County filed a $500 million lawsuit seeking to recover those costs. New York City brought a similar action.

Vacco then filed suit on behalf of the state, joining other attorneys general across the nation. The states, tobacco companies and anti-tobacco activists cut a deal last summer under which the companies would have paid $368.5 billion in return for dropping the state lawsuits.

But the price tag on the settlement grew to $516 billion during deliberations in the U.S. Senate, and the legislation was effectively killed in June.

Last month, attorneys general from across the country decided to fight big tobacco companies individually and as a group, pursuing lawsuits state by state while simultaneously negotiating a multibillion-dollar settlement.

Four states have settled lawsuits that sought to recoup smoking-related health-care costs. The tobacco companies, however, could face similar lawsuits from 37 states.

While those lawsuits move along, Vacco and attorneys general from California, Colorado, Washington state, North Carolina and Massachusetts have continued settlement negotiations with the tobacco industry that might not require Congressional approval.

Vacco has never acknowledged Gorski's call for a 50-50 split between the state and counties.

"We're afraid that if there's a big settlement, the state will simply grab the money," said Gorski spokesman Scott Brown. "So we're using the California agreement to buttress our case."

A share of any multibillion-dollar settlement could mean a large windfall for the county. For example, the failed $368 billion tobacco settlement would have yielded nearly $13 million a year for 25 years.

Gorski has pledged that any settlement money not earmarked for anti-smoking measures will be used to cut taxes.

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