North Dakota Senate Democratic Caucus Final Report

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2009 North Dakota Legislative Session

Senate Dem-NPL Caucus

Final Report

The 2009 Legislative session got started in the chilly winds of January with an ambitious budget proposal from Gov. John Hoeven that looked to increase state spending in major areas, cut taxes, and leave the state with a sizable surplus at the end. Over the next four months—through a declining economy, near-record snowfalls, and major flooding across the state—legislators opened the budget books and got to work adding, cutting and tweaking the initial proposal. Lawmakers also spent their days debating questions such as the state’s stance on abortion, pharmacy ownership, and how federal stimulus money should be spent.

When all was said and done, the 2009 session was one for the record books. There was a record tax cut and a record budget surplus. It was the first session in recent memory to be recessed due to natural disasters and, at 79 days, the longest on record. It was also the first ever session to go into May.

What follows is a summary of major legislation passed during the 2009 session:

Session highlights (passed bills):

–SB 2199: This bill enacted the largest tax cut in North Dakota’s history, giving back $395 million in a combination of property, income and corporate tax cuts. The bill was a grab-bag of different tax cuts proposed throughout the session. The bulk of it provided $295 million in property tax relief, which is to be administered through state aid to schools that comes with instructions from the state that it must be passed on in the form of property tax relief. Essentially, the school districts will serve as a conduit to get state-funded relief to payers of a tax that is assessed on the local government level. The bill also includes $90 million in personal income tax reductions and $10 million in corporate income tax reductions.

–HB 1487: This bill required the Legislature, the body’s off-session Budget Section or the Emergency Commission to be involved with the spending of the state’s $575 million share of the giant federal stimulus program. It was an important part of a larger debate about how the state’s share of the stimulus money should be spent. The main contention was over whether the state’s entire stimulus allotment should be spent, or whether the state should hold back its own money in areas where the stimulus could be substituted, thus saving for the future. The Democratic Caucus strongly supported spending the money now to stimulate the economy, prevent the recession from spreading to North Dakota and repairing our snow and flood-worn infrastructure.

–HB 1496: This bill directs the state to study the viability of a slaughter facility for equines. Supporters said the facility was desperately needed because of the recent closure of the only U.S.-based facilities in Illinois and Texas. This led to a situation where horse, donkey and mule owners no longer had a viable option to relieve themselves of animals that were no longer useful for riding, work or showing. The bill sets aside a special fund, to be administered by the Department of Agriculture, that will pay for the study.

–HB 1430: This bill changed state law to exempt companies that acquired the liability through the purchase of an existing company with asbestos liability. The change was supported by the company Crown Cork & Seal and national groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, which bills itself as a supporter of free markets and limited government. Crown has faced more than $600 million in asbestos liability because it owned an asbestos manufacturer for less than a year in the early 1960s. Opponents of the change charged that it unfairly shifted the financial burden away from companies that caused these problems and on to government and those with asbestos related health problems.

–HB 1171: This bill changed North Dakota’s requirements for parents who wish to home school their children. Before the change, parents were required to have a bachelor’s degree. As originally written, HB 1171 would have repealed any educational requirement for parents who wished to home school their kids. The version that finally passed required a high school diploma or general equivalency diploma (GED). The bill also raises the standards home school students have to meet to get an equivalency diploma from their local high school for their studies.

–SB 2009: This bill, the State Fair budget, contains a new grandstand for the annual fair in Minot. After putting it off during the 2007 session, lawmakers decided this was the year to replace the 1940 structure. But although there was agreement that a grandstand should be built, the amount has been a hot dispute, fluctuating from as high as $15 million to as low as $5 million. In final negotiations, the Legislature settled on $15 million.

–SB 2004/HB 2004/SCR 4038: The Health Department budget (SB 2004), the Office of Management and Budget (HB 1015) and a resolution filed though the delayed bill process (SCR 4038) became the focal point for debate on how to implement Measure 3. Last fall voters approved a measure that set up a separate board to direct how to spend the money that North Dakota received in a 1990s-era multi-state tobacco settlement. Although the people of North Dakota voted overwhelmingly to say this money should be used for tobacco cessation, Republicans made several attempts to hijack the implementation of Measure 3. The first effort was SCR 4038, which called for a vote on a public health trust fund that would supplant the tobacco board and have a broader application than just smoking cessation. The second effort was a version of SB 2004 that stripped funding for the tobacco board. Finally, HB 1015 funded the board with $12.8 million, restoring the will of the voters.

Bills that had a big impact but ultimately failed:

–HB 1572: This bill would have defined an unborn fetus as having the full rights of personhood. It was a roundabout abortion ban that some predicted would have triggered a showdown against Roe v. Wade in the U.S. Supreme Court. Groups including the Catholic Church said it was a poor approach to challenging abortion and would have had many unintended consequences and raised some strange legal questions. For example, could a driver who hits a pregnant woman be charged with double manslaughter? Could a fetus that is cryogenically frozen for 65 years be eligible for Social Security? The bill passed the House but ultimately died on the Senate floor.

–HB 1440: This bill would have repealed North Dakota’s unique law that requires a pharmacy in the state to be owned by a registered pharmacist. It was supported by chain pharmacy owners, including Walgreens and Wal-Mart, and backed by television ads and by an interest group specifically formed to advocate its repeal. Filling hearing rooms and requiring buses to bring all the citizens who wanted to attend, debate over this bill was arguably the most high-profile, headline-grabbing event of the session. Advocates said the bill’s passage would bring a new era of inexpensive prescription drugs to North Dakota, leading to a better life for the elderly and disabled. Detractors said it would devastate small-town rural pharmacies and actually make prescriptions less available to North Dakotans. The bill ultimately died on the House floor.

Bills by senator:

What follows is a list of bills that were either sponsored or co-sponsored by you and your colleagues, or bills that they devoted much time and effort to over the course of the session.

Sen. Arden Anderson (D-25 Wahpeton)

-SB 2191

-Result: Passed.

-This bill will help local governments clear away unused and blighted buildings.

It allows cities to place a lien on this kind of property to cover the cost of the demolition. The city has the right to seek this compensation in court. Essentially, the bill assigns the social cost of a blighted building to that buildings owner, rather than making all the taxpayers bear the burden because somebody’s property has fallen into such a state.

Sen. JoNell Bakke (D-43 Grand Forks)

-HB 1400

-Result: Passed

-Bakke took up a passionate fight this session to have pre-school funding included in the state’s K-12 budget bill. The funding, which was originally proposed by Republican Gov. John Hoeven, was stripped out by Republicans in the Legislature. Sensing the damage such a move could cause our children, Bakke took up the fight with committee amendments, floor amendments and impassioned advocacy in the press.

Sen. Art Behm, (D-19 Niagara)

-SB 2065

-Result: Failed

-This bill would have required vehicles to have their lights on while traveling on North Dakota highways. Behm proposed the bill after having a close call on the road where he would have seen the driver if only the driver had had their lights on. He said it was a common sense safety precaution and wouldn’t be much of a hassle because most modern cars now come with daytime running lights.

Sen. Jim Dotzenrod (D-25 Wyndmere)

-SB 2199

-Result: Passed

-Throughout the process of monitoring and amending the bevy of tax bills that culminated in passage of the omnibus SB 2199, Sen. Dotzenrod took a very active role. From his perch on the Finance and Taxation Committee, he helped refine ideas as diverse as a tax break on clothing at thrift stores to a change in the formula that the state uses to calculate taxes on farm land. Although these ideas did not make it into the final version of SB 2199, it did include a trifecta of property, income and corporate tax cuts.

Sen. Tom Fiebiger (D-45 Fargo)

-SB 2278

-Result: Failed

-This bill would have banned discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals. Currently, there is no law that prevents an employer from firing somebody for being gay, or any law that prevents a landlord from evicting a tenant for being gay. Fiebiger’s bill would have made it illegal to take such actions if the sole justification for doing so was their sexual orientation. The bill sparked a dialogue on the issue, leading to full committee rooms whenever a hearing on it was held.

Sen. Joan Heckaman (D-23 New Rockford)

-SB 2398

-Result: Failed

-This bill would have strengthened physical education requirements in North Dakota with the goal of making our kids healthier. It would have required elementary school students to have at least 15 minutes of physical activity in the morning and 15 minutes in the afternoon. High school students would be required to have at least 30 minutes of physical activity at least three times a week.

Sen. Robert Horne (D-3 Minot)

-SB 2192

-Result: Passed

-This bill declares March 29 as Vietnam Veteran’s Day, a day to honor the sacrifices of those who served our country in the Vietnam War. In passing this bill, North Dakota joins a growing number of states across the country that have declared such a holiday. During the Vietnam War, 198 North Dakotans died in combat.

Sen. Aaron Krauter (D-31 Regent)

-SB 2165

-Result: Passed

-This bill creates an apprentice hunter program in North Dakota. The program allows individuals to experience hunting through a special, one-year-only license that allows them to hunt only while accompanied by a regular registered hunter. The bill also opens up the youth deer hunting season to 12 year olds, though they too must be accompanied to hunt on their license.

Sen. Elroy Lindaas (D-20 Mayville)

-HB 1549

-Result: Passed

-This bill paves the way for agricultural research into industrial hemp, a potentially lucrative crop that North Dakota has been battling for permission to grow. Under current provisions, the state allows the growing and handling of industrial hemp in the commercial agricultural setting. This bill expands that to allow for it in research settings as well. North Dakota is currently petitioning for federal approval from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, which has been a barrier to hemp growing because it is a distant cousin to marijuana.

Sen. Richard Marcellais (D-9 Belcourt)

-SB 2344

-Result: Failed

-This bill would have protected women who wish to breastfeed their children in public places. Specifically, it would have insured that there was no chance that they were charged with indecent exposure for breastfeeding in public. The bill also allowed an option for employers to be labeled “infant friendly” if they allowed breastfeeding related activities at the workplace and provided necessary facilities such as a private room, a sink, and a refrigerator.

Sen. Tim Mathern (D-11 Fargo)

-SB 2362

-Result: Failed

-This bill would have expanded the help available to North Dakota families from the Healthy Steps (SCHIP) program, which provides subsidized health insurance coverage to children. It would have first expanded income eligibility guidelines to include those at 200 percent of the poverty line ($42,400 for a family of four) and then offered a buy-in program for families that are above that limit. The bill also called for study of increasing the limit to 300 percent of poverty, which states like New Jersey have already done.

Sen. Carolyn Nelson (D-21 Fargo)

-SB 2369

-Result: Failed

-This bill would have implemented a property tax credit to renters. It was proposed with the idea that a large property tax cut would be passing this session, and that it was unfair for North Dakotans who are renters to see no benefit from the state’s largest tax cutting initiative. The bill was later turned into a study, but was not adopted in that form either.

Sen. David O’Connell (D-6 Lansford)

-HB 1235

-Result: Passed

-This bill attempts to preserve North Dakota’s once-booming oil industry through tax cuts aimed at promoting continued exploration. Specifically, the bill would provide a special discounted tax rate of 2 percent for the first 75,000 barrels of oil or the first $4.5 million in value pulled from a single oil well. Only wells that are drilled in the future are eligible for the reduced tax, and it’s only in effect when oil is less than $55 per barrel.

Sen. Jim Pomeroy (D-27 Fargo)

-SB 2244

-Result: Passed.

-This bill provides a break to widows of farmers. Specifically, it allows the property they continue to live on to still be considered a functioning farm for the purposes of property tax assessment. Current law provides this exemption for retired farmers, but not their widows. The result is much lower property taxes for the surviving spouse, who is statistically likely to be older and on a fixed income.

Sen. Tracy Potter (D-35 Bismarck)

-SB 2327

-Result: Failed

-This bill provided a procedure whereby historical or historically restored structures could be temporarily exempted from parts of the fire protection code though a situation-by-situation petition to the state fire marshal. The bill is needed because of an inflexible code that results in restriction of activities at state parks and historical sites. It passed the Senate but not the House.

Sen. Larry Robinson (D-24 Valley City)

-SCR 4029

-Result: Failed

-This resolution set forth a new way of doing political redistricting in the state of North Dakota with the aim of making the process fair, bi-partisan, and scientifically based. With approval from the voters, it aimed to enshrine in the state’s constitution an independent panel that would draw new lines for legislative districts every decade. The panel would have been made up of judges from each judicial district in the state and led by the chief justice of the North Dakota Supreme Court.

Sen. Mac Schneider (D-42 Grand Forks):

-SB 2238

-Result: Failed

-This bill would have imposed a tuition freeze at North Dakota universities for the next two years, helping our state’s students in the face of sharply rising tuition. It was supported by students across the state and received the full support of the Dem-NPL caucus. The bill was later amended to only freeze tuition at two-year colleges and hold four-year college tuition to a small annual increase. However, even with this effort, it did not garner the needed support.

Sen. Tom Seymour (D-5 Minot):

-SB 2341

-Result: Failed.

-This bill would have required all school districts in the state be large enough to offer grades Kindergarten through 12 by the beginning of the 2013 school year. Such a change would have dissolved a handful of K-8 districts across the state, mostly in rural areas that do not have a large enough population to support a high school but want to keep its own school district nonetheless. The bill was pitched as a way for the state as a whole to offer K-12 education in a more efficient manner.

Sen. Ryan Taylor (D-7 Towner):

-SB 2393

-Result: Passed

-This bill provided $1 million in emergency assistance to cities and counties that experienced high rates of snowfall during a 2008-2009 winter season that nearly broke earlier snowfall records. The money is to be used for costs incurred in snow removal, including overtime labor, diesel, and equipment. Taylor sponsored the bill after he saw this winter’s effect first hand when his ranch was snowed in and his family could only reach it via snowmobile.

Sen. Connie Triplett (D-18 Grand Forks):

-SB 2246

-Result: Passed.

-This bill would have allowed North Dakota landowners to grant perpetual easements on their property. It would have repealed a 1977 law that made North Dakota the only state in the country where landowners are not entitled to grant perpetual easements, but are limited to an easement of 99 years. This prevents North Dakota landowners from taking advantage of federal incentive programs for conservation that require them to grant perpetual easements to the federal government.

Sen. John Warner (D-4 Ryder)

-SB 2179

-Result: Passed.

-This bill would have increased voter participation in North Dakota’s Presidential Preference Caucuses by allowing 17-year-olds who will be 18 by the general election day to participate in the caucus. This method is used in early caucus states such as Iowa, and has met with success there. Advocates of the bill said it would increase participation in North Dakota’s caucuses and encourage young people to vote.

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