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Pharmacy bill onslaught irks some North Dakota legislators

BISMARCK - State senators are being bombarded by hundreds of identical e-mails from people urging them to vote for the pharmacy ownership bill.

The thing is, the bill isn't even in the Senate and may never get there.

That's one of several factors that have made some lawmakers distrustful of the onslaught, they said.

House Bill 1440 is the bill to repeal a law requiring all pharmacies in the state to have majority ownership by a pharmacist. It should come up for a vote in the House early next week. A House committee has voted 8-5 to recommend the House defeat the bill and keep the law.

Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, is one who's suspicious of messages that started to arrive in legislators' e-mail boxes in the hundreds Tuesday afternoon . Almost all messages say exactly the same thing. The people who send them don't say what town they are from and when Mathern has tried to reply, several bounced back as undeliverable. The error message accompanying his unsuccessful replies shows the e-mails actually originated with, which is part of the group funded by Wal-Mart and Walgreens that's trying to overturn the law.

Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, who remarked several times during a Tuesday evening committee meeting about the dozens of messages pouring into his Blackberry, said Wednesday, "This seems to be overkill, particularly to the body that doesn't have the bill and may never vote on the bill."

The e-mails are addressed to all legislators, Senate and House, as well as the governor's office.

Rep. Lee Kaldor, D-Mayville, considers the 300 or more e-mails he had received by mid-afternoon Wednesday to be outright spam.

"They're all automated e-mails, they're coming out of the - and I was even told this - that they're coming out of the Wal-Marts (stores)," he said. "They must have some kind of kiosk where they're able to put their name in and it's an automatic e-mail to us."

Kaldor has checked the name on every one and recognizes no names from his district. He, too, tried to reply and got the same error message back as Mathern, with links to North Dakotans for Affordable Health Care, funded by Wal-Mart and Walgreens.

He said the effort is counterproductive.

"It's a tactic. And it's not a good one; I mean, I have been pretty tolerant of a lot of things but this is just overdoing it," he said. "They never say where they're from, only that they're North Dakota citizens. And no contact information, no other way to reply and they basically have a message that doesn't persuade me or give me any good reason why I should vote their way."

Kaldor added that he does also get "good e-mails" from supporters of the bill who have left given their phone numbers, addresses and list reasons why they want it passed.

The bill's prime sponsor, Rep. Bob Martinson, R-Bismarck, said the reason so many emails are coming from the lobbying group's address is that the people writing them do not have computers or access to the Internet, so they are taking advantage of lobbyists' offers to get their messages sent to lawmakers.

"Those of us who are supporting this are really representing a lot of people who don't have a voice here," he said. Many of the bill's opponents, he said, "aren't listening to their constituents" but to their friends who are pharmacists.

Perhaps the e-mailed messages should have had people give their hometowns, he said. But the short, uniformly worded messages that Kaldor and the others dislike can be compared to letters and petitions North Dakota pharmacists and other bill opponents are sending to lawmakers.

"I don't think it's any different than walking into a Thrifty White (Drug store) and have the pharmacist say to you, 'Would you sign this petition before I give you your nitroglycerin tablets for your heart?' "

He said the batch of e-mails he got from North Dakota State University pharmacy students are all the same.

Tammy Ibach of Bismarck, who runs North Dakotans for Affordable Health Care, said supporters all over the state have called her saying, "We know they're going to vote; what do we do?"

They only followed the guidelines or rules the Legislative Council suggests - that messages sent to legislators should be very brief and ask them to vote for or against a bill, and identify the bill, she said.

People don't give their hometowns and regular e-mail addresses because they are afraid they'll get spammed.

She said the tables or booths at the Wal-Mart stores were first set up Wednesday and many messages that arrived at the Capitol before that were people that contacted her and wanted a message sent on their behalf.

Mathern said he's surprised bill supporters' methods aren't more sophisticated, considering one of the lobbyists, Chad Oban, has a long history of working for the Democratic-NPL Party, including as a legislative aide. He also said Oban, who is frequently in the Capitol, has never offered to talk to him about the bill.

Another of the bill's lobbyists is Carmen Miller, wife of the state Democratic-NPL Party treasurer and national committeeman Tim Purdon of Bismarck. Three other lobbyists with solid Republican credentials are working the GOP side for the bill--former party Chairman Dan Traynor of Devils Lake, former Bush administration USDA appointee Clare Carlson and Ibach.