by TOM FIEDLER
Public investments are first and foremost an expression of the state's values. Conscience investing is time-honored. There was never any question where Lawton Chiles stood when it came to linking the public's interest with Big Tobacco's. Several years ago a reporter asked the late governor if he was prepared to fight a move by state legislators that would have knocked the foundation out from under Florida's multibillion lawsuit against the tobacco industry.
``This will not be just a fight,'' the governor replied. ``This is jihad.''
Chiles went on to win that Holy War, extracting a settlement from several of the major tobacco companies that included not only the payment of $11.3 billion over 20 years but also pledges to stop aiming their products at children and luring in new consumers with billboard and other messages. The late governor also persuaded others in the Cabinet to put the state's wallet where its principles were by divesting Florida's pension funds of any tobacco stocks. To invest in the very companies that the state was suing, he said then, ``didn't feel right.'' But that was then. To paraphrase a line from former President Gerald Ford, if Chiles had been alive last week, he'd be spinning in his grave.
Gov. Jeb Bush, Treasurer Tom Gallagher and Comptroller Bob Milligan --who collectively decide how to invest the state employees' $100 billion pension fund -- reversed the four-year-old ban and decided to restart buying booming tobacco stocks.
In Bush's words: ``We have a fiduciary responsibility, and we should not put limits for social policy on that.''
Let me translate: ``When it came down to a choice between making a few bucks and saving many lives, we'll go with the bucks.''
Nobody can dispute the fact that the tobacco companies have been doing well on Wall Street in recent weeks. Had Florida stuck with the tobacco stocks these past four years, the pension fund might be some $300 million richer, according to Tom Herndon, the state's director of administration. It was the lure of such lucre that persuaded the three Republicans to go for profit. But the governor should spare us the stuff about being compelled to do so by ``fiduciary responsibility.'' Investing the public's money carries a responsibility much wider than that. Public investments are first and foremost an expression of the state's values. The concept of conscience investing is time-honored. As a protest against apartheid in its waning days, countless investors pressured mutual and pension funds into dumping stocks in South African companies. Many Americans also stripped their portfolios of textile firms that fought union organizers during the 1960s. And more recently, boycotts have hit apparel-makers that moved their manufacturing plants to countries where prisoners and children are put to work.
In many, if not most, of these cases, the protests have had the effect of improving, if not correcting, bad corporate behavior. But what have the major tobacco companies done beyond settling claims with state governments over the medical costs their products produce? Not much. Even in Florida this year -- like last year and next year -- nearly 30,000 people will die from smoking-related diseases. The primary reason why tobacco stocks have enjoyed such a rebound is that the cigarette-makers have opened new markets in foreign countries using the same cartoon characters and advertising techniques they've been made to give up here. The World Health Organization predicts that by 2030, about 10 million people will die of tobacco use every year.
And now Florida investments will shore up the stocks of these companies, which will make them ever-more effective in peddling their slow-death products both here and abroad. If our overseas friends truly understood what is going on, they'd worry as much about the spread of our cigarette industry as about our impact on global warming. Is this something that Floridians want to be a part of? But the immorality of this isn't the only thing terribly wrong with the thinking of Bush, Gallagher and Milligan: Tobacco stocks actually aren't worth this controversy.
PORTFOLIO IS JUST FINE
Between the time Florida dumped them in 1997 until early this year, industry-giant Philip Morris's stock trailed the Standard & Poor index by double digits. Only recently, when interest heightened because of speculation that the corporation would spin off its Kraft Foods division, did it begin to climb.
I can't argue that the state's pension fund would be $300 million richer had it not divested. But here's some perspective: In those four years the value of the state's investments climbed by $30 billion. That means that the tobacco stocks would have added just 1 percent to that growth.
Is that the price of principle? Is that all it takes to abandon the jihad?