North Dakota may find itself short on revenues in coming bienniums, but the state could ease that pain by getting out of the anti-tobacco advocacy business.
First, let’s make the budget picture clear.
“I think there's a realization setting in that the revenues are going to be short of what we expected,” state Senator Gary Lee told me last week during an interview about the state’s finances (we didn’t get into tobacco policy). Lee is a Republican from Casselton who chairs the Legislature’s interim Budget Section committee. He told me the state will likely dip into reserve funds to make ends meet this biennium.
That’s not an unusual point of view among lawmakers these days as our state’s commodity-based economy takes a hit from low commodity prices.
But while the state has prodigious financial reserves, breaking open the piggy bank to access them is not pain free. The more than $575 million in the Budget Stabilization Fund, for instance, would only bridge a revenue gap for any given area of spending that is up to 2.5 percent less than what lawmakers appropriated.
Which means, in plainer language, that agencies hoping to get relief from the fund would have still have to reduce spending by 2.5 percent.
Maybe not such a bad thing, really. Over the last five budgeting cycles general fund spending in the state has grown more than 188 percent. The aggressive spending growth even predated the tax revenue windfall which accompanied the Bakken oil boom.
I suspect our state agencies can probably find 2.5 percent worth of fat to cut.
Fiscal reserves are only a short term solution, though. "I think we're going to be in good shape this biennium,” Lee said. “Next biennium, if it stays like this, it could paint a little bit different picture."
Which means that the budget pain could go alot further than 2.5 percent reductions if revenues don’t rebound.
So here’s a modest proposal for making the belt tightening a little easier: Let’s get rid of our ridiculous and redundant anti-tobacco advocacy agency.
The Center for Tobacco Prevention and Control Policy - you know them as BreatheND from their preachy, condescending advertising campaigns - was created by North Dakota voters on the 2008 ballot.
Voters were told that they’d be casting their ballots for using the state’s share of national tobacco settlement dollars for tobacco cessation programs. Would they didn’t realize is that they’d be creating an anti-tobacco political advocacy group in the state government. A cushy employment opportunity for blinkered political activists - including one state lawmaker, Democrat Senator Erin Oban of Bismarck - which is slowly creeping its mission into fighting vaping.
Something that has nothing to do with tobacco and, ironically, seems to be contributing to reduced tobacco use.
In North Dakota seven years must pass before lawmakers may modify legislation passed by voters at the ballot box. The 2017 legislative session will be the first opportunity lawmakers have to reform, and perhaps even eliminate, BeatheND.
What’s more, 2017 is the last year of the tobacco settlement payments, and BreatheND has been stockpiling their funds. According to the Office of Management and Budget’s appropriations book for the 2015-2017 biennium, BreatheND is projected to have a more than $56 million ending balance.
This is low hanging fruit for lawmakers hoping to ease the transition from boom-era revenues to the post-boom “new normal.”
We don’t need BreatheND to tell us that tobacco is bad for us - that knowledge has saturated the public consciousness - nor do we need a redundant health agency. And we already have a Department of Health.
Lawmakers should close down BreatheND and use its funds to shore up more needful areas of the budget. If there are programs or initiatives BreatheND is responsible for which are necessary to carry on - doubtful, but we can debate it - that policy can be transferred to the Department of Health.
Creating BreatheND was a mistake. Political advocacy doesn’t belong in state government. In 2017 we have the opportunity to both unmake that mistake and ease some budget pain. And if the BreatheND activists don’t like it, they’re free to create a private group and continue their advocacy.
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