North Dakota Democratic Senate Report

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Senate Democratic Caucus

End of Week Report (Week 17)

April 30, 2009

Week 17 in the Legislature marked the slow grinding march towards the end of the session. Over the course of the week, lawmakers split up into small groups known as conference committees to settle final differences in legislation. Three members of the House and three members of the Senate make up a conference committee. For most of the week, the House and Senate started early in the morning, going in and out of session throughout the day and into the night. This schedule, alternating between conference committees acting on bills and the floor passing them out, made up the rhythm of the session’s end.

The session is headed towards what might turn out to be a record breaker. Friday marked the 77th day. The all-time record is 78 days, which was set during the 2007 session. This is also the first session that will end in May. The reason: In late March, Legislative leaders decided to recess the session so lawmakers in flood-affected areas could get back home. Also, normal legislative action could not take place during this time period because travel across the state was prohibited or severely restricted, meaning people who needed to be at the Capitol in Bismarck for hearings or other facets of the legislative process could not get there.

So what’s the hold up? More than 35 conference committees are still meeting to resolve differences on various pieces of legislation. Some of the major issues left to be voted on are HB 1400, the K-12 education funding formula and HB 1012, the Human Services budget. This year’s education bill will be the culmination of two years of work by an independent education panel formed to define and implement educational adequacy standards after the last session. It is also responsible for distributing the education portion of the federal stimulus to each school district in an equitable manner. The Human Services budget, HB 1012, is the largest, most complicated budget in state government. It is also being held up by a debate over whether the Healthy Steps program (also known as SCHIPS) should be raised to 200 percent of poverty or whether it should remain at the current level of 150 percent of poverty.

In other matters:

–SB 2199, a major tax reform measure, passed both chambers of the Legislature and was signed into law by Gov. John Hoeven last week. The measure provides $395 million in tax relief to North Dakotans over the next two years. Of that, $295 million will be delivered as property tax relief funneled from state government, through individual school districts across the state, and into the pockets of North Dakota property tax payers. Another $90 million will be delivered in the form of income tax reductions, and an additional $10 million will be passed on to corporations in the state in the form of a reduction in North Dakota’s corporate tax rate. Property tax reduction has been a pillar of the Democratic Caucus, and most every member supported the tax relief package. At a time when many important programs in our state remain underfunded and our roads remain in disrepair after a season of snow and flooding, many members felt there were better uses for the $100 million in other tax reductions. However, the hope is that all these reductions will work together to keep our economy above water, and to allow North Dakotans to share in some of the state’s budget surplus.

–HB 1554, a bill to regulate extraterritorial zoning, remained in conference committee last week as lawmakers worked towards a solution. The bill is the culmination of anger on the part of rural residents about the state’s current extraterritorial zoning law, which allows large cities to dictate zoning requirements in a band that extends out four miles from its border. The current compromise being considered by the conference committee calls for city zoning control over the first two miles of an extraterritorial zoning area, and mixed control for the outer two miles. The mixed control means that city officials would have to consult with county, township, or other local officials elected by residents of the band in deciding how that area should be zoned.

— HB 1012, the Human Services budget, has become the site for the latest battle over the state’s Healthy Steps (SCHIP) funding level. Since the beginning of the session, Gov. John Hoeven, all Democrats and some Republicans have been advocating raising the state’s SCHIP income requirement to 200 percent of the poverty line, or $42,400 for a family of four. Others are opposed for ideological reasons. Such an increase would allow more families to obtain health insurance for their children and would bring North Dakota closer in line to other states that offer this program. After a separate bill to raise the standards was defeated, attention has now turned to making it part of the Human Services Budget.

–HB 1216, a bill to ease regulations on out-of-state pheasant hunters, passed the Legislature last week. The bill allows out-of-state hunters to hunt three times for five days each during a pheasant hunting season. The current out of state licenses calls for two periods of seven days each. The bill has created tension between in-state hunters who want a rich and bountiful pheasant population to hunt for themselves, and some rural areas that feel the change would be a boon to the economy because lodges, hotels, shops and other businesses that cater to hunters could do so for three weekends instead of just two. However, this issue may not be closed as the Senate may reconsider its actions and vote again on this bill.

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