John Andrist: Tobacco Tax Hike Measure Lacks Appropriate Oversight for Spending


TOM STROMME/Tribune Eric Johnson, of Grand Forks, speaks at a press conference announcing the Raise It For Health North Dakota coalition's introduction of an initiated measure to raise tobacco taxes in the state. The group plan to have the petitions signed to get the measure on the November ballot.

Debate is lining up on both sides of the Initiated Measure proposing to quadruple the tax rate on tobacco products, including vaping.

As a legislator I opposed the concept of using taxes to punish those who make unhealthy choices.

As a voter I have felt differently, because tobacco has a high cost to society, as well as to smokers.

But as the old saying goes, the devil is in the details, and that’s what is making me vacillate.

I hope all voters will look at how the expected $33 million revenue will be spent.

Specifically, more than $13 million would be transferred to a state agency out of reach from the legislature, The Veterans Post War Trust Fund, administered by an appointed committee.

Another $13 million would be locked away for use in a public health fund. I’d be okay with that if it left appropriation with government oversight, which I don’t believe it does.

That doesn’t mean it has been or is being poorly spent. It simply ignores the reality that all spending needs oversight.

That was the fallacy of the original tobacco cessation measure we passed, in my view. I really believe the agency we created is dedicated to their mission, but nobody from the outside is closely watching, because there is little government control when money is appropriated by the people.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]The legislature, like all of us, makes mistakes. But when it meets to decide when and where we spend the tax money they are looking at all needs.[/mks_pullquote]

There more recently was a measure to lock away oil taxes into a similar fund dedicated to conservation. We wisely rejected that one.

The legislature, like all of us, makes mistakes. But when it meets to decide when and where we spend the tax money they are looking at all needs.

They never have and never will have enough to fund everything requested. So they haggle through their 140 elected members, pruning this, adding that, hoping to solve the greatest priorities as they balance spending.

If they make a mistake or priorities change, it’s a whole new game every two years.

Agencies receiving it are audited. Their programs and expenditures have others looking over their shoulders.

Smart initiated measures, in my view, should stick with policy directives and not take away legislative oversight on spending.

Even veterans, whom we treasure, should make their case for needs like everyone else instead of being given a purse full every two years.

You and I should stick to voting, on policy and not try to micromanage the budget.

This treatise is not intended to influence your vote. I’m still somewhat undecided myself. But it’s a reminder that smart voting includes taking time to look at the details.

It’s either too hot or too cold

It was 35 years ago. Jimmy Carter was president, about to become the second one-term president in a row.

It was a scary time. We were running out of energy, living at the mercy of Saudi oil barons. The president was ordering us to turn down thermostats.

To make things worse we were being warned by the scientific community that cooling temperatures might be heralding a new ice age.

North Dakota was thriving with new oil discoveries. Little did we know our boom was about to bust, and we would be facing the driest, toughest decade in modern times.

North Dakota schools were being starved, because there wasn’t enough money in the state coffers to even pay them all that the legislature had promised.

The problems seem to be totally reversed today. We have a surplus of oil and gas, the ice age has been replaced by global warming.

Environmental science tells us our world must quit using fossil fuels or our coast lines will be flooded by melting ice caps at the north poll.

The seriously dry weather has been replaced by too much rain, except in California, where it is hot. Funny thing, that warming. It is making us wetter and warmer at the same time it is making California hotter and drier.

I’m not a denier that we have excess CO2 in our atmosphere, nor that global temperatures are inching upward.

But I will admit that I still have some skepticism whether we can really do anything to change it.

We have never been very good at playing God.