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North Dakota veterans address complaints from Measure 4 opponents

Jim Markey, VFW Quartermaster Adjutant of North Dakota, talks with a group of veterans and supporters of the tobacco tax ballot measure on Monday at The Depot.

FARGO — Campaigns surrounding Measure 4, the proposed tobacco tax increase on the state's ballot, are heating up in the final two weeks leading up to Election Day.

And on Tuesday, Oct. 25, North Dakota's veterans service organizations — representing more than 31,000 veterans across the state — addressed opponent's claims during a news conference at The Depot.

"We're here to set the record straight about Measure 4," said David Johnson of West Fargo, adjutant of the North Dakota American Legion. Johnson said North Dakotans Against the 400% Tax Increase, a group comprised of tobacco companies and the North Dakota Petroleum Marketers Association, is spending "millions to mislead voters."

Measure 4 was initiated to provide a veterans tobacco trust fund, which would be funded by half of the new tax revenue estimated to raise $70 million per year, Johnson said. Remaining revenues would be dedicated to a community health trust fund, county-level health services and other health-related programs.

A "yes" vote would increase whole price tax on cigars and tobacco products, including liquid nicotine, from 28 to 56 percent. It's been 23 years since the state increased its tobacco tax, which is 44 cents per pack of cigarettes and would be raised to $2.20 per pack if the measure passes. The national average is $1.65 tax per pack and Minnesota's tax of $3 per pack became effective at the start of 2016.

Johnson questioned the involvement of Virginia-based Concerned Veterans of America with the opposition, saying the organization has no presence in North Dakota and is a "puppet group" for big business.

"Who do you think is really looking out for the vets in our state?" Johnson asked.

Opponents of Measure 4 say it's unclear how the revenue would be spent, and they argue funding should go toward anti-smoking programs. While the measure would support health services and could lower the smoking rate by 25 percent, they say revenue is not directly allocated to tobacco prevention programs.

Raise it for Health ND, a leading proponent of the measure, counters by saying the state already has a "comprehensive tobacco prevention and cessation program" that voters approved in 2008.

A draft strategic plan presented by veterans on Tuesday outlined some programs that could be funded if the measure passes, including grants for health care, housing and education, behavioral and mental health services, transportation, and service dogs.

Attending the news conference in support of the measure was Michele Olson, 1st District vice commander of American Legion Post 2 in Fargo, who said funding in the measure provides a "fantastic opportunity for veterans."

"I think it's definitely a worthwhile measure," said Olson, adding that the money raised will not only support veterans, but decrease smoking. With the growing number of retired and homeless veterans, "a lot of them do need help," she said.

Mike Rud, chairman of North Dakotans Against the 400% Tax Increase, said smokers shouldn't be solely responsible for funding the state's veterans.

"We're all for supporting veterans, but we all need to pay that. You can't take this from a small group of the population," he said. "Everybody in North Dakota needs to kick into this if money is needed. We all need to be responsible for that."

But Rud added that he's "not proposing a tax increase for anyone at this time."

Kim Hyatt

Kim Hyatt is a reporter with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and a 2014 graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth. She started her newspaper career at the Owatonna People’s Press covering arts and education. In 2016, she received Minnesota Newspaper Association's Dave Pyle New Journalist Award and later that year she joined The Forum newsroom.

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