New York state lawmakers may not have the sense of urgency needed to pass legislation creating a lockbox for opioid settlement funding, something that has John Coppola, executive director of the New York Association of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse, quite worried.

“We are really hoping that the Speaker [Carl Heastie] and the Majority Leader [Andrea Stewart-Cousins] will come up with an agreement on a bill that they can put on the governor’s desk for him to sign. And if he were to veto it, to override that veto,” Coppola told Capital Tonight.

On the other hand, Coppola said, Gov. Andrew Cuomo could also opt to be a hero in this narrative.

"This is a golden opportunity for the governor to say, ‘in New York, we’re going to do this the right way. We’re going to take the lead,'" Coppola said. “He could design and support the strongest service-delivery system and be the state that addresses this pandemic of addiction and overdose that’s going on across this country.”

While state Sen. Gustavo Rivera’s legislation (S6683) to create a lockbox for opioid settlement funds has passed unanimously through the State Senate Finance Committee, a similar bill, but not a “same as” bill, sponsored by Assemblymember Carrie Woerner (A06395), remains in committee.

According to advocates like Coppola, passage of the bill can’t come soon enough.

“In all likelihood, if they go home without an agreement, these funds will be swept into the general fund,” Coppola said.

Over the next few months, states will begin seeing funds from opioid lawsuit settlements that could total in the billions.  While that money should be directed to overdose prevention and education, it will likely be swept into the general fund, unless the legislature acts now to create safeguards. 

According to two authors from the Pew Charitable Trust writing for Governing Magazine, states don’t want to repeat the blunder of the 1998 tobacco settlement.

“…in the absence of strong requirements that the funds be spent on tobacco use prevention and cessation programs, as originally envisioned, only a small percentage has been used for these purposes," they write.

But the use of opioid settlement funds for general fund purposes has already begun in New York.

Earlier this year, New York received $32 million from an early opioid settlement with the consulting firm McKinsey. About two-thirds of the total was swept into the state’s general fund; the other third was spent on opioid reduction in prisons. 

Unless both houses of the Legislature pass a bill to assign and designate opioid settlement funds before the end of the legislative session, the same fate may await any further settlement funds directed to New York. 

But recently, when asked about the issue, Gov. Cuomo didn’t seem willing to change the status quo. 

“Any funds that come from settlements go into the general fund. We then do the state budget. From one lump sum in the general fund and make allocations. And we make an allocation to addiction services, which has always been a priority for the state,” Cuomo said. 

State Sen. Pete Harckham, chair of the Senate Committee on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse, told Capital Tonight in April that the Governor’s plan isn’t acceptable.

“No administration should have the ability to use opioid settlement to supplant state aid rather than to supplement the effort,” said Harckham. “We must pass legislation to ensure an ironclad, incremental lockbox for future settlement funds.”

Coppola agrees. 

“Susan, it would be a disaster,” he said. “There’s a court case, I believe it’s coming up on the 22nd of June in Suffolk County. There (are) hundreds of millions of dollars that could potentially come in to New York state. If the legislature goes home without agreeing to a bill, it is likely that those funds…will be swept into the general fund as well.

The legislative session is scheduled to end on June 10.