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Joe Morrissette, left, state director of the Office of Management and Business, testifies in front of the Legislative Management Committee recently at the state Capitol in Bismarck, regarding Measure 3, the legalization of recreational marijuana, and the possible financial impact it could have on North Dakota if the voters pass it in November. 

North Dakota lawmakers of Legislative Management debated Wednesday the accurate fiscal impact of Measure 3 on marijuana legalization, zeroing in on an educational campaign not mandated by the measure.

In a report presented by Office of Management and Budget Director Joe Morrissette, implementation of Measure 3 would cost about $6.7 million, though some costs could not be determined. Included in that total is an approximate $4.4 million educational campaign for youth and at least two full-time employees for the state Health Department for this and next biennium.

Legislators met to discuss and forward to the Secretary of State’s Office the fiscal impacts of the four initiated measures on the 2018 ballot. They voted 8-7 to present a fiscal impact that cannot be fully determined for Measure 1’s ethics commission, no fiscal impact for Measure 2 on who is a qualified elector and to indicate a certain loss of revenue resulting from Measure 4 for special license plates for volunteer emergency personnel.

Legislative Management held two votes on Measure 3’s fiscal impact, initially rejecting a motion from House Minority Leader Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks,  in a 5-10 vote to approve the fiscal impact but omitting the state Health Department’s figures, with other costs to be determined.

“This does not lead to a $6.7 million fiscal impact. It’s a $2.2 million fiscal impact, with more that’s likely to happen but it cannot be determined,” Mock said. “It will cost more than $2.2 million. We just don’t know how much."

Lawmakers then voted 10-5 to approve the motion by House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, to itemize, per agency, Measure 3’s projected costs of $6,641,462, and noting additional costs yet undetermined.

Sen. Erin Oban, D-Bismarck, opposed Carlson’s motion as she said such a fiscal impact would give a false impression.  

“There seems to be a disagreement among this committee about what we want versus what the language in the measure actually says,” Oban told the Tribune. “I think there was universal agreement, probably around this table, about wanting, if Measure 3 passed, an education campaign from the health department about the impacts of marijuana, especially on youth, for prevention purposes. But the measure does not require that. To me, it is lying to claim that Measure 3 required that, because it didn’t.”

Morrissette told lawmakers that the state Health Department “indicated in their response that, because they have a responsibility to protect the health and the safety of North Dakotans, they believe (the educational campaign) would be warranted.”

"To me, this almost committed the next Legislature to fund, if Measure 3 passed, the exact educational campaign that the health department asked for," Oban said.

Sen. Jerry Klein, R-Fessenden, said he preferred to present the $6.7 million in costs for Measure 3 for the public to see the health department’s figure, regardless if appropriated or not in 2019. Other costs are unknown as well, he added, such as what it would cost to law enforcement agencies to replace K9s trained on marijuana detection.

“Until the measures are passed, and the Legislature and all the agencies can dig in and put an actual cost on it, I think our job has been simply to approve something that somebody said might cost this,” Klein told the Tribune.

David Owen, who chairs the sponsoring committee behind Measure 3, said he takes little to no issue with the measure’s estimated fiscal impact. He acknowledged the educational campaign as “an expenditure that doesn’t have to be there,” but lauded its intent and noted that the measure's mandatory costs make legalization of marijuana "not all that expensive." 

“Do I think you need $4 million for an advertising campaign? I don’t know, but it’s better to have more estimated costs and come in under budget than have to come in over budget,” Owen told the Tribune.

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Capitol Reporter