New head of state tobacco trust to earn $250K (The Oklahoman)

By Rick Green 

A state agency that manages tobacco settlement money has created a $250,000-a-year job and offered it to someone whose name was not disclosed.

By comparison, the governor of Oklahoma makes $147,000 per year.

Some have questioned the high salary for the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust’s new chief executive officer, a position created at a time when many state departments are facing severe budget cuts.

Tracey Strader, 57, who now leads the trust as executive director, earns $120,000 a year and will stay on with the agency, which has 22 employees. 

David Blatt, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Policy Institute, said it’s unusual to create a $250,000 position for an agency with so few employees, while other, much larger parts of state government, affecting millions of Oklahomans, are run by executives earning much less.

The trust has more than $1 billion in its endowment, funded by settlement money from big tobacco companies. Interest from the settlement is spent by the trust to discourage smoking and boost public health.

“Certainly by the standards of state government a salary this big is almost unprecedented,” Blatt said. “It seems hard to know why they would be willing to double the salary of the existing director and why the name hasn’t been revealed.”

The trust’s board of directors offered the job to the candidate Tuesday. Until and unless that person agrees to take the job, the name will not be released publicly, said Julie Bisbee, a spokeswoman for the agency.

Jim Gebhart, the chairman of the board, said the salary level is not unusual.

“The salary range is in line with what was recommended by multiple executive search firms interviewed during the selection process and in line with national standards,” he said. “The salary is at the low end for similar organizations nationally.”

Gebhart didn’t provide specifics on what organizations he was using for comparison.

He said the current executive director will continue to serve in a leadership role that “will be more defined when the new chief executive officer joins the team.”

State Treasurer Ken Miller, chairman of a panel that decides how the trust’s money is invested, said leadership requirements for the agency may have grown but also sounded a note of caution.

“I am not aware of the internal workings of the board’s personnel decisions, but agree having two highly paid executive positions is bad optics unless it’s for a period of transition,” Miller said.

Much of the trust’s spending goes to campaigns to discourage people from smoking, overeating or otherwise engaging in bad health practices. It also funds health research.

Jonathan Small, president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, said his organization has been encouraging the trust to use some of its resources directly to help people access health care.  

“We believe they should be more proactive in shoring up rural primary care needs, critical access needs, as opposed to advertising and funding grants,” he said.

Small said that if the new chief executive officer is successful in steering the agency in the direction of helping the state pay for public health care, he or she could be worth a big salary. 

The Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust Fund was created by a constitutional amendment in 2000 to handle money generated through a massive settlement agreement with the tobacco industry.

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