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Associated Press, Published March 31 2013

North Dakota Legislature: Abortion, oil taxes, animal cruelty top Capitol issues this week

BISMARCK — The North Dakota Legislature and its Republican governor have garnered attention worldwide and made the state ground-zero in the latest round of the decades-old abortion fight. As the Legislative session marches into April, abortion is still the biggest topic at the Capitol but other issues remain, including oil taxes and animal cruelty.

Here's what to watch:

ABORTION COSTS

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem initially told The Associated Press that lawyers from his office would defend any lawsuits that arise, but his office is now considering hiring outside help.

The two-year budget for his office, which has some 30 attorneys, is about $60 million. Stenehjem said the cost of litigation is unknown but his office expects to have an estimated dollar amount that could be presented to lawmakers this week.

“We're looking at a sufficient amount to adequately defend these enactments,” Stenehjem said.

He expects lawsuits to be filed in federal court “but that's not up to us,” he said.

Under federal law, he said, “Whoever loses generally has to pay attorneys’ fees for the other side.”

North Dakota lawmakers have shunned critics’ repeated attempts to set aside money for the inevitable lawsuits.

Sen. Connie Triplett, D-Grand Forks, thrice tried to amend bills to set aside $1 million for the sure-to-come litigation but each of her amendments failed.

Most Democrats and a handful of Republicans have been vocal in saying it's irresponsible for lawmakers to pass such controversial measures without setting aside money to fight court battles.

“North Dakota taxpayers at least deserve to know the cost of litigating these bans,” said Democratic Sen. Mac Schneider, the Senate's minority leader and a Grand Forks attorney.

The North Dakota Legislature's move to enact the most stringent abortion laws in the nation likely could backfire, with the state on the hook for both sides’ litigation costs, Schneider said.

“The possibility of paying attorney fees for the other side of this should concern everyone in North Dakota,” Schneider said.

ABORTION

Gov. Jack Dalrymple is awaiting the arrival of another anti-abortion bill on his desk.

The governor signed three bills last week that gives North Dakota the strictest abortion laws in the country, but he stopped short of saying whether he will sign the fourth, which would ban that procedure after 20 weeks of pregnancy based on the disputed premise that fetuses feel pain at that point.

The three signed last week that drew worldwide attention include one that bans abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, or when a heartbeat can be detected. Dalrymple also signed into law other measures that make the state the first to ban abortions based on genetic defects such as Down syndrome and require a doctor who performs abortions to be a physician with hospital-admitting privileges.

The governor says he doesn't know how much a court fight would cost but says money isn't the issue. He has urged lawmakers to set aside funding for a legal fight promised by abortion-rights advocates.

OIL TAXES AGAIN

Democrats say they will offer an amendment this week to a Republican-sponsored House bill aimed at restructuring oil taxes.

House assistant Democratic leader Corey Mock of Grand Forks said the amendment will target the so-called stripper well loophole that's costing the state millions of dollars in lost revenue annually.

A Senate bill aimed at restructuring oil taxes was killed by the House earlier this month. Now the Senate is considering a House bill that would redo the state's oil tax policy.

Both measures seek to close loopholes used by oil companies in exchange for lower tax rates.

The oil industry, however, has been critical of the House bill, saying it's overly complex and penalizes drillers.

It's unlikely the oil industry will be supportive of the Democrats’ amendment.

ANIMAL CRUELTY

North Dakota's House could act this week on a measure to toughen the state's animal cruelty law, though some animal rights groups say it doesn't go far enough.

Senators endorsed the measure last month that would have created some felony penalties for cruelty, abandonment and neglect. Under the House version, only cruelty would be a felony.

The most severe punishment for animal cruelty now is a year in jail and a $2,000 fine.

Animal rights groups have said South Dakota and North Dakota are the only states without felony penalties for animal mistreatment.