Is the Fight to Keep BreatheND About Public Health or Big Salaries for Bureaucrats?

North Dakota needs to find ways to save money. In his final budget address to the Legislature in December former Governor Jack Dalrymple proposed eliminating the Center for Tobacco Prevention and Control. You know them as BreatheND, purveyors of those obnoxious and pervasive anti-smoking ads.

Yesterday Governor Doug Burgum proposed his own tweaks to Dalrymple’s budgets, saying he wants to eliminate another $159 million in spending. Nowhere has he indicated that he’s in favor of keeping the roughly $16 million appropriation for BreatheND.

That would seem to leave a clear path for state lawmakers who have been anxious to close down the agency since it was created by a majority vote for Measure 3 on the 2008 ballot. So as it stands SB2084, introduced by the Senate Appropriations Committee at the behest of Governor Dalrymple, would eliminate BreatheND.

Going forward the state Department of Health would be responsible for whatever anti-tobacco programs the state implements.

I spoke with Senator Ray Holmberg about the situation this morning. Holmberg, a Republican from Grand Forks, chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee. He said that BreatheND is fighting “tooth and nail” to keep their funding, and pointed to their salaries as perhaps a big reason why.

Holmberg provided me the spreadsheet below which shows the pay for the seven BreatheND employees who are classified (the head of the department is not a classified employee), and made the point that the people at this stand-alone agency have been paying themselves very, very well.

He made two points about the pay:

  • BreatheND employees have the top (or nearly the top) salaries at each pay classification they’re in
  • These employees have top-tier pay despite relatively short periods of service time

In other words, the BreatheND folks have been pretty lavish with their salaries.

I’ve long joked that BreatheND is less a public health agency than an employment program for anti-tobacco activists. I guess I didn’t realize how right I was.

Holmberg said the level of these salaries, which are above what employees with much more experience receive,┬ámakes it hard for lawmakers to even consider transitioning these employees over to the Department of Health. I’d have to say he has a point.

When Measure 3 passed in 2008 the pitch to voters was that North Dakota should use revenues from the tobacco class action settlement to fight tobacco use. But those settlement payments run out later this year.

BreatheND accomplishes very little outside of carpet bombing North Dakotans with preachy advertising and taking credit for downward trends in tobacco use which probably would have happened anyway. What little justification there was for the agency is quickly running out now that the aforementioned class action payments are coming to an end.

We seem to have a perfect storm brewing for BreatheND. We have lawmakers who have long wanted to be rid of the agency, a budget situation which necessitates belt-tightening anyway, and a Governor who so far seems ok with closing them down.

Let’s hope it happens. To the extent that the state has an interest in informing the public of the risks of tobacco (as if we haven’t already reached the saturation point on that knowledge) it can be handled by the Department of Health.

Here is the salary list I received from Holmberg. The BreatheND employees are marked in yellow.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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