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TJ Jerke, Forum News Service, Published March 02 2013

GOP progress is problem for Dems in North Dakota Legslature

BISMARCK – As the Legislature headed into a mid-session break, House Majority Leader Al Carlson highlighted progress on property tax relief, infrastructure and setting aside money for a rainy day.

“Three things that were very important to us going in, and we have every intention of continuing doing that,” the Fargo Republican said.

But the Democratic Party sees the first half differently. Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider said the Legislature hasn’t been as focused on addressing the needs the oil boom has created in western North Dakota, effectively cutting property taxes and finding ways to prepare the state for life after the boom.

In particular, the lawmaker from Grand Forks said, “something has to give” with the tax cuts for corporations and individual incomes that passed, as well as the oil extraction tax cut, which “puts our future in jeopardy.”

“I think we are taking a scatter-shot approach,” Schneider said. “When you try to be everything, you miss an opportunity to do the things the people are really concerned about.”

Carlson noted the Legislature is looking after North Dakotans. “There’s a

$2.4 billion reason in the (Department of) Human Services budget to show that we care.”

Bills passed by one chamber in the first half of the session will be taken up by the other chamber when legislators return Wednesday.

Three bills already have become law. The first included $620 million for road projects in oil-producing counties and $100 million for roads in non-oil producing counties.

The second included

$31 million for rural water projects and the southwest pipeline project. The third bill ensures privacy in the state’s bill tracking system.

Here’s a look at where the Legislature stands on some other issues:

Property taxes

So far, the Legislature is looking at $766 million in property tax relief with $740 million coming from the state buying down property taxes and putting

$26 million into the state’s Homestead and Disabled Veteran Tax Credit.

A large portion of that relief will come out of a new K-12 funding formula, an estimated $595 million in relief.

The House also passed a bill that would ensure taxpayers have a say in their property taxes by requiring a local government body to hold a citywide vote if it wants to increase property taxes by more than 3 percent, with some exceptions.

Income taxes

Businesses may see their taxes decrease after a bill to cut corporate income taxes by $200 million passed the Senate. Likewise, individual incomes may see relief after a $50 million income tax cut made it through the Senate.

The two parties are split on the issue. Republicans believe the economy is generated by a good business climate, which means lower tax rates to attract businesses.

But Democrats believe both corporate and income taxes should be left alone and North Dakota residents should be one of the primary focuses of the session.

Infrastructure

Lawmakers have added $500 million more to the governor’s budget, now worth $4 billion, to pay for infrastructure. The proposed funding is $2.1 billion more than what was put in place by the Legislature in 2011.

This includes $2.3 billion for roads, $50 million for low-income housing, and $219 million for oil impact grants, among others.

“If we are going to have revenue, you have to have good roads,” said Sen. Rich Wardner, the Senate Majority Leader from Dickinson.

Water

So far, $520 million is in the state’s Water Commission budget for water projects, flood control and flood relief support.

But amendments made to the budget have many worried because they would cap state funding for flood protection at $325 million and prohibit funds for some aspects of flood fighting – potentially threatening Fargo’s Red River diversion project.

Carlson, who proposed the amendments, said if the state puts money toward the diversion first, it hurts the chances of help from the federal government.

But Schneider says “to think the federal government is going to write a check without viable state commitment to diversion is delusional.”

K-12 education

K-12 funding is under the $2.1 billion Department of Instruction budget – the second-largest budget – which passed the House Thursday. That is $412 million larger than the current budget.

Much of that funding comes from the new K-12 funding proposal, with state government footing more of the bill for local schools and lowering local property taxes.

Two identical bills, one in the House and one in the Senate, were introduced to help pay for more early childhood development classes. The bills asked for about $4.6 million to create $100,000 grants to distribute to schools.

The House version ditched that idea, instead allowing local authorities to use certain local tax revenues to fund early childhood development programs. The Senate version passed with the grant funding still intact.

The second half of the session will decide which idea wins out.

Higher education

Higher education will receive $1.1 billion for the 11 public campuses and the University System office if the House passes the current version for the 2013-2015 biennium.

The Senate added an amendment to the budget to put $854,520 into the state Board of Higher Education’s account and allow them to buy out Chancellor Hamid Shirvani’s remaining contract.

“Hope that vote is an indication of a new leaf that needs to be turned over here,” Schneider said.

The bill was sent to the House, where Carlson said the Education Committee Chair, Rep. Mike Nathe, R-Bismarck, “is not a big fan of doing anything with it,” and there has been a mixed reaction among House members.

Even if it passes, it is up to the board to use the money to remove Shirvani.

Carlson said the more important discussion is “what the proper governance is for the next 20 years.”

Two resolutions would put changing the higher ed governing system to a statewide vote:

• One from Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, would make the chancellor an elected position.

• The second from Sen. Joe Miller, R-Park River, would change the state Board of Higher Education to a council of regents led by someone appointed by the governor.

DUI laws

The Senate and House have passed legislation to increase penalties and mandatory sentences for drunken drivers and provide closer monitoring for those who have been convicted.

“I’m very hopeful we will do something bold to not only take those drivers off the road but contribute to a change in the culture in North Dakota,” Schneider said. “For too long, drunk driving has been seen as something acceptable and that is unfortunate.”

Guns

North Dakotans may be able to carry concealed weapons at public events and, with the proper permission, in churches and schools.

The House passed three bills, one of which drew heat from open government advocates because it allows a school board to decide, in private, who could be able to carry a firearm on school property if they have a concealed weapon permit. Only board members and local law enforcement would know who is carrying a weapon.

Another bill, sponsored by Rep. Roscoe Streyle, R-Minot, would allow an individual to seek civil penalties against law enforcement if they enforced a new federal law regulating gun use.

Another would allow a convicted felon prohibited from possessing a firearm to petition a district court to restore the individual’s firearm rights.

Abortion

The House and Senate both passed legislation to limit abortion.

The House said an abortion cannot be performed if a heartbeat is detected, shortening the time an abortion could be performed to perhaps as little as five weeks after conception.

It also passed a bill making it illegal to perform an abortion solely based on the gender or genetic abnormality of the child.

The Senate said a person performing an abortion must have admitting privileges to a hospital within 30 miles of an abortion clinic. It also said an abortion cannot be performed if the fetus is determined to be more than 20 weeks old.


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