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Commentary: Health department's fiscal note for recreational marijuana measure is ridiculous

MINOT, N.D.—The Legislative Management Committee in Bismarck recently considered reports on the fiscal impacts of the four ballot measures on our November ballot.

This is an important step in the legislative process, allowing the various state agencies to chime in on what sort of impacts these measures might have if they're approved by voters.

For instance, the Department of Transportation estimates the state will lose about $17.7 million in revenue from vehicle registrations over the next decade if Measure 4 is approved. Passage of that measure would give first responders free license plates as free access to state parks.

That's important information to know when considering whether to vote for Measure 4.

Assuming the information is accurate, and calculated in good faith.

The Department of Health did not meet those standards with the cost estimate they provided lawmakers for the implementation of Measure 3, which would legalize recreational marijuana.

First, I should point out the health department does not have a good track record in this area. In fact, it's so bad lawmakers serving on Legislative Management are skeptical of their numbers.

"What people should keep in mind is that two years ago when the health department presented their information on what they estimated to be the cost of medical marijuana if it passed they said $8.7 million," one lawmaker told me after this week's meeting. "For fiscal year ending June 30, 2018 their actual cost was $363,000."

The inflated figure doesn't seem to have deterred many voters. The medical marijuana measure passed easily in the 2016 election.

Still, what's the point in doing these fiscal impact estimates if they're going to be wildly inaccurate?

This week the health department told lawmakers the measure would have a more than $4.6 million cost impact on their agency, but the figure is misleading when we drill into the details behind it.

For instance, they say the measure will require them to spend $3.8 million on an "education campaign" about the health impacts of marijuana.

They also include more than $193,000 for a full-time program manager to manage that education campaign, and another $150,000 for a full-time epidemiologist to track the impacts marijuana use on our population.

These are not cost impacts. This is a wishlist. One concocted by bureaucrats who are always hungry for bigger budgets and bigger staffs.

While we can have a debate whether or not this spending would be appropriate should marijuana become legal in North Dakota, none of it is necessitated by the measure.

And yet these requests made up about 65 percent of the reported fiscal impact of Measure 3, which in turn will no doubt be used in the debate over the measure.

The point of this exercise is to inform the voters. Unfortunately, thanks to the health department, what we've done is give voters a distorted view.

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Follow him on Twitter at @RobPort and listen on WDAY AM 970.

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