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Tobacco groups blast House changes

BISMARCK -- Backers of last year's successful tobacco control initiated measure say the state House is defying the will of voters by deleting part of the program passed in the November election.

House members, insisting they're improving what voters approved, voted 57-34 along party lines on Wednesday to amend Senate Bill 2063. The bill enacts into state law the dictates in Measure 3, which 54 percent of voters OK'd and which called for $18 million in 2009-11 for programs to cut down on smoking in the state.

The funds come from the national tobacco settlement the state participated in 11 years ago.

Measure 3 backers said the House amendments gutted the bill.

"This is a travesty," said one, Dr. Jim Hughes of Bismarck, shortly before the House voted.

"This is not what the voters voted for," said former Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp,

The House amendments eliminate a tobacco program governing committee called for in the initiated measure and will end the program in eight years. Instead of the committee managing the program, it will be in the state Health Department.

The changes aren't final unless the Senate also accepts the same amendments.

The amendments are controversial not just because they change the measure, but because the state constitution restricts what lawmakers can do with laws voters enact via initiated measures. The Legislature can't repeal or change initiated laws for seven years unless both houses approve by two-thirds margins. But the House didn't need a two-thirds vote to amend the bill, only to pass the final bill.

Supporters of the amendments include Rep. Gary Kreidt, R-New Salem, who said during Wednesday's House debate that the changes make the bill "better than what the people asked for." He sponsored the amendment that the House Appropriations Committee adopted Tuesday and sent to the full House.

Rep. Jon Nelson, R-Rugby, asked supporters of tobacco cessation and control programs to not be swayed by Measure 3 activists' charges that the voters' will is being disregarded. The amended bill still puts the same millions of dollars toward tobacco programs as the original bill, which called for $9.3 million per year.

"Don't let anybody say to you that (this) isn't serving that purpose," he said. "This is actually more money."

Rep. Lee Kaldor, D-Mayville, opposed the amendments and argued for passage of the original bill as the Senate OK'd in February on a 46-0 vote. He said contentions that voters didn't know they were voting to set up a governing committee for the tobacco programs is misinformed and disrespects voters' intentions.

"The people of North Dakota should be trusted," he said. "We must trust them. They have spoken. And they have sent us a wake-up call."

Kaldor said voters created and passed the measure because, for 10 years after the national tobacco settlement funds began arriving in the state, the Legislature has never appropriated an adequate amount to tobacco control and cessation. Most of it goes into school and water development funds.

Measure 3 called for setting up of a state tobacco control committee appointed by the governor and dictated that the Legislature must appropriate for the committee an amount equal to what the federal Centers for Disease Control says is necessary to effectively cut tobacco use in the state.

Supporters of the measure and original bill said the amendments violate the voters' intent by sending $4.1 million of the tobacco money to other programs at the state Health Department, such as cancer screening and emergency medical service grants.

Those defending the amendments said that money is better used for those programs than to pay for the expenses of the tobacco control committee called for in Measure 3.

Nelson told the amendment opponents, "Essentially what you're saying is (that) creating another agency of state government is more important than savings lives."

The House will vote on the amended bill today. If it passes, the issue will be far from settled. It will go back to the Senate, which will have to decide whether to accept the amendments or send the bill to a conference committee. If it doesn't pass by a two-thirds margin, it's unclear what happens, legislators said Wednesday.

Senate Minority Leader David O'Connell, D-Lansford, said his caucus would be discussing the bill amendments and what the Senate should or could during its regular weekly meeting Wednesday night.

"It will be the No. 1 topic of conversation" he predicted.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, said he has no idea how the Senate will respond to the House's version of the bill.

Cole works for Forum

Communications Co., which

owns The Jamestown Sun