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Dale Wetzel, Associated Press, Published February 22 2009

North Dakota lawmakers to see 20 constitution change proposals

BISMARCK – One proposed constitutional amendment seeks to abolish property taxes. Two want to change the length of North Dakota’s legislative sessions. Three advocate new trust funds for oil taxes.

When the Legislature resumes its work Wednesday, lawmakers will begin debating a total of 20 proposed constitutional amendments, most of which have been introduced in the past two weeks.

Taxes

The most sweeping proposal, offered by Rep. Dan Ruby,

R-Minot, eliminates all local property taxes and orders the Legislature to craft a method for using state tax sources to make up the revenue lost by local governments.

“It’s a concept that should be put in front of the people,” Ruby said. “I think it would be probably the best economic development program that we have. It would be the best tax break for individuals and families that we could have.”

Three competing amendments offer ways to stash some of North Dakota’s oil tax collections in separate funds. Last November, North Dakotans soundly defeated an amendment to set up a constitutional savings account for oil taxes, but each of the three new proposals has some differences from that spurned measure.

Two would establish funds to salt away a portion of the state’s oil tax collections, deposit investment earnings in North Dakota’s general treasury and allow lawmakers to spend some of the principal if two-thirds of the House and Senate agreed.

The third, sponsored by Sen. Connie Triplett, D-Grand Forks, would set up an oil trust fund and dedicate its investment earnings to education spending and college scholarships. The fund’s principal could not be spent for any reason.

Triplett supported the proposed amendment that voters defeated last November. Her new proposal, she said, is intended to allay concerns that last year’s proposal socked away too much oil money and did not provide guidelines about how the fund’s earnings would be used.

“What we’re doing here is offering up a few different alternatives,” she said. “Hopefully, with the discussion, we’ll come out with a consensus.”

Redistricting

Three proposed amendments, each offered by Democrats to a Republican-controlled Legislature, would change how North Dakota’s legislative district boundaries are drawn every 10 years. The proposals are timely because redistricting is done after each federal census; the new population count is coming up in 2010.

At present, the Legislature itself is responsible for its own redistricting. Lawmakers decide the number of districts – there are now 47, each represented by two House members and a senator – and their boundaries.

Each of the three redistricting proposals would put the job into the hands of an independent commission. Lawmakers would not be able to tinker with the commission’s plan, although they could challenge it in court.

Two of the proposed amendments would establish eight-member redistricting commissions and give North Dakota’s judiciary a role in the process.

One commission would be made up of seven district judges and an appointee of North Dakota’s chief justice. The other would give the chairman of the University of North Dakota’s geography department and the presiding judges of North Dakota’s seven judicial districts power to appoint one member each to a redistricting commission.

The third proposal seeks to set up a nine-member commission, with eight of its members chosen by Republican and Democratic legislative leaders and the ninth picked by the UND geography chairman.

Its principal sponsor, Sen. John Warner, D-Ryder, said he wanted legislators to keep a role in redistricting even though they would not control it.

“I think it’s important that the Legislature buy into the process, and that we not turn it over to the judicial branch,” Warner said.

Voting

The increasing sophistication of computer software that analyzes voting trends in geographic regions is giving legislators the power to choose who votes for them, Warner said. He believes that hampers the Legislature’s ability to form a political consensus on issues.

“We’ve seen districts in which one party can’t win and the other party can’t lose,” Warner said. “What you do, is you damage the integrity of the conversation, the conversation that is our social contract, when you don’t reach consensus. You don’t need to bring the discussion back to the middle. And so you end up with all of the discussion being at the extremes.”

Two of the 20 proposed amendments were circulated as initiative petitions last year but failed to get enough support to qualify for the ballot.

One would limit annual budget increases for North Dakota’s state government and local governments to the rate of inflation unless 60 percent of voters approved higher spending. The second would require North Dakota’s superintendent of public instruction to be a licensed teacher.

Legislative sessions

Another pair of amendments would lengthen the amount of time the Legislature could remain in regular session every two years.

The North Dakota Constitution now limits the Legislature to 80 days of regular-session meetings each biennium. One proposed amendment advocates a 100-day limit. The second, sponsored by Rep. Lonny Winrich, D-Grand Forks, supports a 120-day maximum.

Winrich said the longer period would make it more feasible for the Legislature to hold its regular business session in odd-numbered years and a shorter session in even-numbered years for budget reviews and urgent policy matters. He said the current 80-day limit puts pressure on legislators and citizens.

“We are not serving the citizens very well with good hearings and giving them time to let us know what they think about bills,” Winrich said.