You might think that tobacco and Teflon don't have a lot in common.
But since the state reached a $850 million settlement agreement with 3M over chemicals used make Teflon and other products last month, there's been a lot of talk about Minnesota's landmark settlement with tobacco companies in 1998.
Like the 3M case, the tobacco lawsuit reached a dramatic conclusion before a jury could decide its fate. And like 3M, the tobacco companies agreed to pay many millions of dollars to address problems from its products.
There are some big differences in the two cases, too.
• First off, 3M disputes that its perfluorinated chemicals caused any health problems. The tobacco companies agreed to annual payments to cover the health costs associated with smoking and to help smokers quit.
• The money also goes straight into the state's general fund, no strings attached. Years later, under the Pawlenty administration, it proved tempting for legislators trying to balance a budget deficit. They issued bonds against future tobacco payments, hence the phrase "tobacco bonds."
"There were other states that did it, but I think it was a very poor public policy," said Jay Kiedrowski, a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs. "Because in essence, what they did was borrow from the future to balance the budget in that current year."
When Attorney General Lori Swanson announced the 3M settlement, she was clear that she wanted to avoid a repeat scenario.
"Here we've specifically restricted the money so the payments will go to fix the problems caused by these chemicals in the east metropolitan area," Swanson said at a news conference last month.
3M will pay the $850 million in one lump sum grant into the state's remediation fund. The settlement restricts how the money can be used — first, to provide long-term clean drinking water for east metro residents and to restore fish and wildlife habitat. It gives the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Department of Natural Resources the power to decide how to spend the funds.
• Whistleblower: State didn't get enough money in 3M deal on water pollution
That doesn't sit well with some lawmakers, who have voiced concern the money could get siphoned off for administrative costs or other projects around the state.
East metro residents whose drinking water was affected should remain the focus, said Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, who heads the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee.
"The degree to which they have input into how the settlement dollars are spent and how they're accounted for is very, very important to me," Fabian said.
At a House committee hearing this week, Fabian suggested the Legislature might need to take some action to put what he calls "guardrails" around the money.
The settlement will remain under control of the court. But Mehmet Konar-Steenberg, who teaches environmental law at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, wonders who will be able to raise questions about how the money is spent.
"Is it the case that only the attorney general would be able to, for example, go back to court and say, you know, this is not what we intended for this money?" Konar-Steenberg asked. "Is that going to be in the discretion of the agencies? Or could a citizen say, 'I don't think you've sort of settled on the right projects. You're not dispensing this money on the right topics. You should be spending it on something else?'"
Officials from the DNR and MPCA said they are forming a working group to help decide what to do with the money. They plan to seek public input at a series of listening sessions this spring.
The MPCA also created a website so people can track progress of the settlement.