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Published January 27 2013

North Dakota Legislature: What to watch this week

BISMARCK — North Dakota's 63rd legislative session is well under way and lawmakers are set to consider bills that range from booze sales on Sundays and taxes on cigarettes to setbacks and flaring regulations for oil wells.

Here's a glimpse of what's to come:

SMOKING TAXES

Rep. Eliot Glassheim quit smoking cigarettes when the cost a pack rose by a dime decades ago. Now the Grand Forks Democrat is sponsoring a bill that would increase state tax on a pack of smokes from 44 cents to $1.

State and federal data show North Dakota ranks 46th among states in the amount of tax smokers pay. New York charges the most state excise tax in the nation at $4.35.

The increased cigarette tax would add $15 million to $20 million annually to the state's general fund, Glassheim said — but he said that's not why he's pushing HB1387.

“The point of it is not to raise money,” Glassheim said. “The point is to help people stop smoking.”

NO SMOKING

Sen. Tim Mathern has introduced some get-tough legislation on the oil industry's practice of burning and wasting natural gas as an unwanted byproduct of oil production.

The Fargo Democrat's bill would require companies to stop pumping oil after one year unless gas-gathering systems are in place. No hearing has been slated but there should be plenty talk in the halls of the Capitol this week.

About one-third of the state's gas production is being burned off or “flared.” Companies are allowed to waste the gas because development of the pipelines and processing facilities needed to handle it has not kept pace with production.

Oil companies in North Dakota can flare natural gas for a year without paying taxes or royalties on it. After that, companies can request an extension because of the “economic hardship” of connecting the well to a natural gas pipeline.

The U.S. Energy Department's Energy Information Administration says less than 1 percent of natural gas is flared from oil fields nationwide, and less than 3 percent worldwide.

Point of fact: North Dakota's burning oil patch can be seen clearly in satellite photos from space.

MORE SETBACKS FOR DRILLERS

Oil drillers will have to move their wells farther away from homes under legislation to be considered this week by the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Oil companies can drill a well within 500 feet of an occupied dwelling at present. The proposed bill would lengthen the distance to 1,320 feet, or a quarter-mile.

Regulators would still have the power to permit a well closer to someone's home, if the homeowner approves.

Moneymaking yard ornaments have a way of being tolerated.

ZERO BOOZE THIRTY

Some North Dakota lawmakers believe noon is too late to begin buying booze on Sunday.

The measure, HB1367, would allow alcohol sales on Sundays to begin at 10 a.m. instead of noon.

The measure is sponsored by Reps. Randy Boehning, R-Fargo, Andrew Maragos, R-Minot, Roscoe Streyle, R-Minot, and Sen. Carolyn Nelson, D-Fargo.

Sunday business restrictions are part of the state's so-called blue laws. North Dakota law once required most businesses to stay closed on Sundays. It was changed in 1985 to allow grocery stores to open.

The Legislature in 1991 allowed most businesses to open on Sundays but they couldn't open their doors before noon.