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Janell Cole, Published March 19 2009

Dems’ tax bill aimed at BCBS stalls

BISMARCK – House Republicans on Wednesday resisted a delayed bill to slap a high tax on the $2.2 million severance package of Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota’s recently fired CEO.

The bill was brought to the House Delayed Bills Committee on Wednesday, one day after House Democratic-NPL leaders proposed it. The committee consists of two Democrats and three Republicans.

The panel adjourned without voting on whether to introduce the bill, in part because House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, said he’s working on a bill to address issues arising from the BCBS controversy.

The BCBS board fired its CEO and president, Mike Unhjem of Fargo, last week after a $250,000 Cayman Islands trip for BCBS salespeople became known.

House Minority Leader Merle Boucher, D-Rolette, asked the committee to introduce the bill, which would tax nonprofit CEOs’ income more than $1 million at a 70 percent state income tax rate.

BCBS is a nonprofit mutual company, meaning the policyholders own it.

Carlson told the Democrats, “I have a little different approach to this, and we’ve been working on something as well” in a bill that has not yet been written.

House Speaker David Monson, R-Osnabrock, said he was hesitant about “bringing in legislation in a reactionary mode.”

Boucher said it is not just about Unhjem but all nonprofit corporations that enjoy the advantage of paying no corporate income tax and no property tax.

He also said North Dakota’s public employees’ health insurance program is BCBS’ biggest health insurance customer and the premium rates are going up.

Carlson said he wants a bill that covers issues such as rates and approval requirements and whether the state has “statutory barriers to competition” in health care. BCBS of North Dakota has about 90 percent of the health insurance business in the state.

Cole works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Forum. She can be reached at (701) 224-0830 or forumcap@btinet.net