Weighty measures await Legislature in session’s second half
BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — The North Dakota Legislature has finished work on bills in its respective chambers, and when the session resumes Wednesday after a six-day recess, lawmakers will be faced with hundreds more measures in what’s known as “crossover.” That’s when senators will begin working on House bills, and vice versa.
Here’s a look at some highlights as the Legislature approaches its second half:
The Legislature isn’t as skittish over oil prices — a major contributor to the state’s wealth — as it was the past two sessions when sliding crude prices forced lawmakers to pump the brakes on spending. Oil prices have remained mostly stable through the first half of the session but lawmakers are in a wait-and-see mode and will delay final work until new oil tax revenue projections are released early next month.
The forecast helps lawmakers draft the state’s upcoming two-year budget.
Lawmakers have expected oil tax collections to be almost $600 million lower than Gov. Doug Burgum assumed in his two-year $14.3 billion spending blueprint late last year — the highest proposed budget in state history.
Lawmakers have reason for some hope: Revenue for the current two-year budget cycle is nearly $244 million above estimates due to higher-than-anticipated oil prices.
GUBERNATORIAL WISH LIST
North Dakota’s governor doesn’t control the state’s purse strings. It’s the Legislature that decides how much to spend on state government, and lawmakers are split on some of Burgum’s top initiatives.
Leaders say Burgum’s $30 million proposal to build infrastructure for the state’s unmanned aircraft industry has almost universal support in both chambers and almost certainly will be funded with earnings from the state’s voter-approved savings account for oil and gas taxes
But lawmakers are lukewarm on the governor’s idea for using $50 million in Legacy Fund earnings to fund a presidential library for Theodore Roosevelt.
While the drone infrastructure idea has been budgeted, the Roosevelt library in western North Dakota has been left out so far.
Most lawmakers believe the state has more pressing needs.
OPERATION PRAIRIE DOG
Named for the industrious tunneling rodent, Operation Prairie Dog is a plan to rebuild infrastructure projects outside of western North Dakota’s oil patch.
The measure would provide $280 million in every two-year budget cycle for counties, cities and airports in non-oil producing areas.
The proposal easily passed the House and now heads to the Senate, where it almost certainly will get approval. Why? It’s the brainchild of Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, who crafted the plan after grousing by lawmakers outside the oil patch that their oil-rich colleagues were getting too large a share of money for their infrastructure needs.
Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman said the idea generally has the support of her caucus, too.
The heaviest lift outside of balancing the books in the session’s second half will probably be developing rules to comply with a voter-approved constitutional amendment aimed at ethics reform.
The House and the Senate each passed measures to address the so-called anti-corruption amendment that has provisions to restrict lobbying and create an independent ethics commission, among other things.
The bills differ greatly. The House bill was crafted by Republican majority leaders, while the Senate’s is a Democratic measure.
Republican leaders say components of both bills may morph into a single measure that will have to be reconciled by both chambers.
The GOP-led House approved legislation that would use money from the state’s Legacy Fund to help offset income taxes. Burgum told reporters he doesn’t like the idea and senators have said quietly that the proposal will almost certainly get rebuffed in their chamber.
Backers of the measure, which include top Republican House members, believe state income taxes likely would be eliminated over the next decade with earnings from the fund that currently holds more than $6 billion.
Backers also believe it could help repel potential initiated measure attempts to drain the fund so that the money is distributed to voters. If that were to happen now, it would mean about $9,000 in cash to each North Dakota resident.
The state is poised to pass its first abortion laws in six years.
Wardner, the Senate majority leader, said he believes the two House bills that further restrict the procedure will pass his chamber too.
One bill would ban a commonly used second-trimester abortion procedure. Another bill would require abortion providers to inform women undergoing drug-induced abortions that if they changed their minds, they could still have a live birth — a claim critics argue isn’t supported by medical evidence.
Burgum has refused to comment on those bills but has said he would have signed several anti-abortion measures approved by lawmakers and former Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple in 2013.
SUNDAY MORNING SHOPPING
The Senate will have another shot at deciding whether North Dakotans may shop on Sunday mornings.
The House has passed legislation to repeal the state’s longstanding Sunday business restrictions that are rooted in religious tradition.
A similar bill failed 25-22 in the Senate last session.
The National Conference of State Legislatures says about a dozen states have some form of Sunday sales laws, but only North Dakota prohibits shopping on Sunday morning.