Tobacco, UND med school bill up today

A controversial bill that would essentially snuff out North Dakota’s tobacco control and prevention efforts to fund the expansion of UND’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences goes before its first committee hearing today.

Not only would HB 1353 take tobacco settlement funds set aside by voters in 2008 for an anti-tobacco program, it would also eliminate the entire section of state law that allows for an agency to manage those funds.

Anti-tobacco advocates are predictably up in arms over the move, arguing it would undo their efforts and allow smoking rates to go up again. Contrary to some who say the effort’s not working, they point to evidence such as declining revenues from the state cigarette tax, which fell 6.6 percent between fiscal year 2007 and fiscal year 2010.

But supporters of the bill say the funding would help more people because expansion of the med school would alleviate the massive shortage of health care workers that the state expects to face as its population ages. After all, they say, anti-tobacco funds only help smokers quit, but better access to health care would help everyone.

HB 1353 is written by Rep. Bob Skarphol, R-Tioga, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee’s Education and Environment Division. The hearing, though, is in the Education Committee at 9 a.m. today.

Co-sponsors include several committee chairpersons: Rep. Robin Weisz, R-Hurdsfield, chairman of the House Human Services Committee; Sen. Judy Lee, R-West Fargo, chairwoman of the Senate Human Services Committee; and Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Because the bill would override a referendum, a two-thirds supermajority vote is needed. Skarphol said he’s confident he has the votes needed.

At stake is about $104 million in tobacco settlement funds meant to pay for the attorney fees of state attorneys general that sued Big Tobacco. It yields about $27.6 million each biennium and is set to expire in 2017. Tobacco advocates say they only spend half of what they get every biennium and can make it last until 2027.

HB 1353 would also open up another fund that yields $4.3 million to $5.3 million each biennium for public health for uses other than anti-tobacco programs. State law now says 80 percent of the money has to go to anti-tobacco programs.

The funds are now used to fund everything from public service announcements to classes helping smokers quit, as prescribed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A lot of it is given to local public health departments to run their own programs.

If given to the med school, $28.9 million in one-time funding would pay for a new building and $5.8 million each biennium would pay for programs to teach more health care workers for the state.


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