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Lawmakers, governor criticize severance for closed agency

October 26, 2017

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Some North Dakota lawmakers are criticizing compensation for employees of a tobacco prevention agency that was shut down after the Republican-led Legislature decided it duplicated anti-tobacco efforts by the Health Department.

The center for Tobacco Prevention and Control Policy, or BreatheND, closed June 20 and its nine employees were each given six months of salary and a cash payout equal to the cost of six months of health insurance, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

Pam Sharp, the state’s top budget writer, said the total compensation to agency employees was $400,739.

The severance package was far sweeter than what was offered to cabinet-level agencies under a voluntary buyout program earlier this year. Those buyouts were mandated by Gov. Doug Burgum to help balance the state budget that has been hit hard by slumping energy and commodities prices.

Pam Sharp, North Dakota’s top budget writer, said 158 employees from cabinet-level agencies were approved for buyouts, at a cost of about $3 million. Those employees could choose options ranging from three months’ salary to leaving without pay but staying on state health insurance for a year.

Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki said the governor was not aware of the BreatheND severance package until the AP asked about it. He said Burgum believes the severance was excessive.

“The governor thinks what was offered under the voluntary buyouts was appropriate and the agency did not follow that,” Nowatzki said.

The agency was created in 2008, almost a decade after the state accepted money in a settlement of a multistate lawsuit against the country’s largest tobacco companies. In 2008, voters approved a measure to use a percentage of the tobacco settlement funds to develop a comprehensive program to discourage smoking, smokeless tobacco chewing and other forms of tobacco use.

The state has received about $16 million from the settlement since 2009, data show.

The agency had a two-year budget of about $16.5 million, but had asked for $18.2 million for the next two-year budget cycle. The agency’s director, Jeanne Prom, was paid more than $105,000 annually.

North Dakota United, the union representing more than 11,500 public employees, declined comment on the severances to BreatheND workers.

Former Gov. Jack Dalrymple recommended last year that the agency be dissolved and its efforts be shifted to the state Health Department, which also has tobacco prevention programs. Burgum also supported closing the agency, and signed legislation in April to do so.

A board that oversaw the agency also was dissolved at the end of June, but not before approving the severance for the agency’s employees two weeks earlier.

Eric Johnson, a Grand Forks physician who served on the board’s three-member executive committee and approved the payouts, said they were “well within the limits of the law.”

“What is often lost is that none of money was tax dollars,” he said.

Bismarck Republican Rep. George Keiser, the only lawmaker on the executive committee, did not attend the meeting in June when the severences were approved. He said he had expressed earlier that the severances were “too dramatic and excessive.”

House Majority Leader Al Carlson, of Fargo, said the severances highlighted the “reason we closed them down.”

“They were not accountable to anybody and it’s really sad that money was supposed to be used for tobacco prevention,” Carlson said.

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