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James MacPherson, Associated Press, Published February 24 2013

Medicaid, oil taxes among week’s issues in North Dakota Legislature

BISMARCK – North Dakota’s Legislature is in its last week before its midseason break, and lawmakers are finishing up committee work and considering remaining bills in their respective chambers.

Medicaid, oil taxes and guns are among the issues to be debated this week as the session heads toward crossover.

Medicaid expansion

North Dakota lawmakers have yet to decide whether to expand Medicaid to cover more uninsured North Dakotans.

Rep. Robin Weisz, R-Hurdsfield and chairman of the House Human Services Committee, said that the House may give an “up or down” vote this week.

Weisz held an informal meeting last week with fellow lawmakers to discuss expanding the program as part of the federal health care overhaul.

Republicans have two-thirds control in both the North Dakota House and Senate.

“The caucus is divided,” he said.

North Dakota’s Medicaid program now covers about 65,000 people a month. If the state expands eligibility, another 20,000 people – mostly adults without children – would be added to the program.

Oil tax restructuring

Sen. Dwight Cook, R-Mandan, is confident that his proposed measure to restructure oil taxes will pass the Senate this week.

The measure is aimed at closing loopholes enjoyed by oil companies in exchange for lower tax rates in North Dakota.

Cook’s proposal would cut the exemption for so-called stripper wells that the state Tax Department says is costing North Dakota about $50 million in revenue each year.

Stripper wells are exempt from the state’s 6.5 percent extraction tax, but not a 5 percent production tax. Attempts to close the loophole have failed in the past three legislative sessions.

Cook said the proposed legislation could change significantly in the House. But he said North Dakota will have a new oil tax structure after this session.

Guns in emergencies

Rep. Karen Karls, R-Bismarck, says today will be “gun day” in the North Dakota House.

One gun measure expected to come up today is her measure that would allow people to possess a gun in public during a declared state of emergency. And it would allow residents to sue if the government tries to confiscate their guns or ammunition during a declared emergency.

Several states have enacted such laws after New Orleans police confiscated guns while trying to restore order following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The North Dakota measure also would allow the sale of firearms and ammunition during a declared emergency.

Oil tax trust fund:

North Dakota’s oil tax “Legacy Fund” now has about $850 million in assets and it’s growing rapidly with increased oil production.

North Dakota voters approved the fund in 2010.

It gets 30 percent of the state’s oil tax collections. None of the money can be spent until 2017, and even then it takes a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to get into it.

North Dakota Treasurer Kelly Schmidt says $57.8 million was deposited into the fund this month. It’s been collecting oil tax revenue since September 2011.

Legislative observations of a 9-year-old

Nine-year-old Joel Bowman of Jamestown traveled to the Capitol on Friday with his mother, Suzanne, and older brothers Luke and Levi for a civics lesson.

Joel said he would have worn his tie during the Senate floor session but one of his brothers stole it from him.

So what did the fourth-grader learn?

“They talk a lot,” he said.

And how long did he listen?

“Long enough,” he said.

All was not lost, he said: “Some senator gave me some Skittles.”