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James MacPherson, Associated Press, Published March 24 2013

As ND Legislature heads toward homestretch, abortion still focus at Capitol

BISMARCK — Committee hearings are expected to be few in the coming week as senators review bills that were approved by the House and the House continues to consider Senate measures as the North Dakota Legislature heads toward its homestretch.

With fewer than 30 legislative days remaining, the Capitol — and the nation — will be buzzing with anticipation over what Gov. Jack Dalrymple will do with a package of anti-abortion measures approved by both chambers that would make North Dakota the most restrictive state in the U.S. to get the procedure.

ABORTION

House members voted on four abortion measures Friday and rejected only one: a bill that would define life as beginning with conception and writing the definition into state law. Representatives did approve a resolution that would put the definition into the state constitution, if approved by voters.

The North Dakota House approved the resolution 57-35, sending it voters likely in November 2014. The resolution, which essentially would outlaw abortions in the state, had been approved last month by the Senate Senate.

Representative also endorsed two other anti-abortion bills Friday. One would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy based on the disputed premise that fetuses feel pain at that point. Lawmakers also passed another measure that requires a doctor who performs abortions to be a physician with hospital-admitting privileges.

The Republican-controlled Legislature had already passed measures that would ban abortion as early as six weeks, or as soon as a fetal heartbeat is detected, and because of genetic defects such as Down syndrome. Together, those bills would give North Dakota the strictest abortion laws in the nation.

Abortion-rights activists have vowed to fight any of the measures in court if North Dakota's Republican governor signs them into law.

Dalrymple has remained mum on the proposals. His staff said none of the bills had reached his desk by late Friday.

MEDICAID EXPANSION

North Dakota's Senate could vote this week on whether to expand Medicaid to cover more uninsured residents of the state. But even the wonkiest of Capitol observers aren't taking bets on what the chamber may do.

North Dakota's House reluctantly endorsed the measure late last month while criticizing the component of the federal Affordable Care Act championed by President Barack Obama.

GOP House members grudgingly voted for the measure because of the potential for North Dakotans to be hit with higher costs without it.

The Medicaid program in North Dakota now covers about 65,000 people a month. If the Senate endorses the measure, an additional 20,000 people — mostly adults without children — would be added to the program. Under the health care law, the federal government would cover the full cost of expanding Medicaid through 2016, with the state's contribution rising in stages to 10 percent.

OIL TAX RESTRUCTURING

Sen. Dwight Cook, R-Mandan, was visibly disappointed after North Dakota's House overwhelmingly defeated his bill that would have lowered tax rates for oil companies in exchange for closing loopholes.

Cook, who chairs the Senate Finance and Taxation Committee, had pushed the measure as a proverbial “win-win” for the oil industry and the state. Senators signed off of the measure but House members — the majority of whom are in his own party — murdered the measure 87-6 last week, with little debate.

Democrats slammed the proposal and initially said Cook's proposal would cost North Dakotans the state more than $595 million in lost revenue in the first five years. The numbers were later recalculated and ballooned to about double that sum.

Cook had countered that North Dakota stood to gain millions of dollars by closing loopholes under his measure. And he said the measure's goal of eliminating so-called price triggers approved earlier by the Legislature protected the state from billions of dollars in lost revenue if oil were to fall below a certain price.

After all the debate, what remains is an elephant-in-the-room exemption for so-called stripper wells that the state Tax Department says is costing North Dakota about $50 million in revenue each year, and will increase as more wells come on line. The 1980s-era law cuts taxes for low-producing oil wells to keep them pumping but it also has been applied in recent years to some gushers in North Dakota because they are near the weaker wells.

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 — and it appears this will be a fourth.

Democrats and Republicans have increasingly criticized the exemption enjoyed by the oil companies — and say it must be closed — but neither party has proposed legislation this session to address the issue on its own.