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N.H. Legislature fast-tracks tobacco settlement legislation

The Legislature is on the fast track to authorizing the attorney general’s office to join a multi-state legal settlement with tobacco companies.

Back in 1998, New Hampshire and 45 other states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico reached a settlement with the big U.S.-based cigarette makers. As a result, the state has received annual payments from the companies averaging between $40 million and $50 million.

But a dispute over the payments led to some money being withheld and additional litigation, which is now close to being settled. New Hampshire needs permission from the Legislature to join the latest settlement, and the Senate last Thursday passed a bill on a voice vote to do just that. The legislation is expected to go before the House on Wednesday for approval, then go to Gov. Maggie Hassan for her signature.

The settlement could still be held up by litigation, warned Deputy Attorney General Ann Rice, and she said the numbers at this point “are not fixed.”

But if everything goes well, she said, the state would get a payment in April estimated at $30 million or so, then send between $13 million and $15 million back to the tobacco companies. The state would then return between $3 million and $5 million a year for the next four years.

The amount sent back over five years wouldn’t exceed the initial lump sum, according to the authorizing legislation, so it could come out as a wash for the state. But in the short term, the initial payment could help balance the state budget for the current fiscal year.

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