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Marsy's Law cost estimated at $2M per year

Pam Sharp, director of the state Office of Management and Budget, presents the fiscal note for Measure 3, a crime victim's-rights ballot measure, to members of the Legislative Management Committee at the state Capitol in Bismarck on Thursday. The cost to state agencies impacted by the measure if it passes on Nov. 8, is $3.9 million in the next biennium. Bismarck Tribune photo by Mike McCleary

BISMARCK — A ballot measure aimed at expanding the rights of North Dakota crime victims and listing them in the state constitution would cost taxpayers nearly $2 million per year, according to an estimate presented to lawmakers Thursday.

Marsy's Law for North Dakota spokeswoman Lacee Anderson disagreed with the fiscal note, saying it wrongly assumes all crime victims will opt for notification services.

"It assumes there's going to be more people signing up, which we haven't seen in other states," she said.

Retired attorney general and district judge Robert Wefald, who chairs the committee opposing Measure 3 on the Nov. 8 ballot, said it's unnecessary and the fiscal impacts look real.

"This is going to cost more money at a time when we don't have more money to spend," he said.

If it's approved and takes effect 30 days after the election, Marsy's Law would cost more than $1.1 million for the remaining seven months of the 2015-17 biennium and nearly $4 million for the entire 2017-19 biennium, according to estimates provided by county governments, state agencies, the Supreme Court and other groups.

County governments claimed the biggest cost burden, estimated at $1.74 million every two years, noting prosecutors and their nonprofit agency partners that provide victim support already serve 7,000 victims of crimes against persons. Expanding that role to all 20,000-plus victims of property crimes, misdemeanors, municipal crimes and juvenile crimes would require adding 10 to 15 employees "or cause a significant erosion of services to those victims of serious crimes," the fiscal note stated.

Legislative Management, the panel of 17 lawmakers that carries out certain functions of the Legislature between its biennial regular sessions, also received fiscal notes on measures that would increase tobacco taxes and legalize marijuana use for medical purposes.

State Tax Commissioner Ryan Rauschenberger said his office estimates Measure 4 would generate $141.7 million in additional revenues during the 2017-19 biennium and reduce consumption of cigarettes by 19.8 percent, liquid nicotine products by 22 percent and other tobacco products by 11 percent.

The measure, being pushed by a coalition of mostly health advocacy groups, would raise the cigarette tax from 44 cents to $2.20 per pack and increase the tax on other tobacco products from 28 percent to 56 percent of the wholesale purchase price. The state's Community Health Trust Fund and a proposed new trust fund to support health care services for military veterans would each receive an estimated $36.6 million in fiscal year 2018 after the tax hike.

Retailers, business groups, and major tobacco firms are fighting the measure.

In response to lawmakers' questions, Rauschenberger said the estimated drop in cigarette consumption didn't factor in the possibility of people driving to American Indian reservations to buy smokes at a reduced tax rate. The fiscal note also didn't consider the potential loss of sales tax revenue on other products when Minnesotans cross the border into Fargo and Grand Forks to buy cheaper tobacco.

"We did not essentially look at the ripple effect," Rauschenberger said.

The Department of Health estimated that legalizing medical marijuana would leave unfunded cost gaps of about $154,000 in one-time costs and $2.5 million per biennium, after revenues such as registration and renewal fees are subtracted from expenses.

Deputy State Health Officer Arvy Smith said implementing Measure 5 within 30 days of passage "will be, like, impossible," noting the department has neither the money nor the 32 full-time staff that would be needed to administer and regulate a medical marijuana program. Measure sponsors criticized a previous Health Department cost estimate as fearmongering.

The state Bureau of Criminal Investigation also estimates needing 15 additional employees to conduct background and compliance checks at a two-year cost of nearly $2.8 million.

Legislative Management approved posting the fiscal notes on the secretary of state's website.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.

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