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Associated Press, Published April 21 2013

Adjournment looms for North Dakota Legislature

BISMARCK — North Dakota's Legislature is beginning to feel the crush of deadline.

Monday is Day 71, which means North Dakota's Senate and House have just nine days to clear bills on their respective calendars before the state constitution's 80-day limit is imposed.

Data from the Legislative Council, the North Dakota Legislature's research arm, show 144 bills remained at midday Friday. That compares to the 100 bills that remained during the same period a session ago.

“They're running behind,” said Jim Smith, director of the Legislative Council. “The pace is really starting to pick up.”

LEGISLATIVE ACTION

North Dakota's Legislature opened the session in January with more than 842 bills and 76 resolutions.

As of Friday, Gov. Jack Dalrymple had signed 359 bills into law, including four anti-abortion bills that make North Dakota the strictest state in the nation in which to get the procedure. The laws take effect Aug. 1 but are sure to meet legal challenges.

A dozen House resolutions have been killed to date and eight Senate resolutions have met the same fate, Legislative Council data shows.

Several pieces of major legislation are still being negotiated by both chambers, including all remaining two-year budget and tax bills.

OIL TAXES

An oil tax overhaul increasingly seems fantastical this session as a conference committee of Senate and House members has yet to reconcile differences.

One big sticking point to reworking the oil tax structure is the so-called stripper well exemption that the state Tax Department says is costing the state about $50 million lost revenue annually.

The exemption for so-called stripper wells was intended to keep low-volume wells producing in times of depressed prices, providing jobs and at least some tax revenue for the state. It also advanced technology in the oil patch over the past three decades by allowing companies to experiment with new drilling techniques. But the 1980s-era law also excuses higher-producing wells from paying extraction taxes because they are near the weaker wells and drilling in the same oil pool.

Sen. Connie Triplett, D-Grand Forks called the exemption a loophole enjoyed by the oil industry. Rep. David Drovdal , R-Arnegard, says cutting the exemption amounts to a tax increase on the oil industry.

“The oil industry understands this in not a tax increase,” Triplett said.

Said Drovdahl: “If you're paying more, it's a tax increase.”

Both lawmakers are on the oil tax overhaul conference committee.

Rep. Craig Headland, R-Montpelier, the committee chairman, said the goal of the overhaul is to be “revenue neutral.”

Attempts to close the stripper well exemption have failed in the past three legislative sessions.

DRUNKEN DRIVING

A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling has the North Dakota Legislature rewriting its drunken driving laws in the waning days of the session.

The nation's high court ruled last week that police usually must try to obtain a search warrant from a judge before ordering blood tests for drunken-driving suspects.

About half the states — including North Dakota — don't require warrants for blood tests in all or most suspected drunken-driving cases.

Republican Sen. Kelly Armstrong, a Dickinson defense attorney, said the Supreme Court's ruling makes North Dakota's warrantless blood tests unconstitutional.

HIGHER ED DINNER SOCIAL

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said last week that a North Dakota Board of Higher Education dinner social at the university system chancellor's home violated the state's open meetings law.

In a written opinion, Stenehjem said the higher education board failed to provide adequate notice of the Jan. 16 meeting at Chancellor Hamid Shirvani's home. Stenehjem said minutes of the event also were “inaccurate and did not adequately list the topics discussed at the meeting.”

Stenehjem's opinion also said that he could not find wrongdoing with a similar dinner social attended by a quorum of board members at a downtown Bismarck bar and restaurant. Stenehjem said the board denied that public business was discussed over drinks and dinner at the Toasted Frog last month.

Some at the Capitol say they have a tough time believing the board, which increasingly has been a target of lawmakers this session. North Dakota's Senate on Thursday narrowly defeated a resolution that would have replaced the higher education board with a three-member commission. The vote was 24-23.

Stenehjem said he has to take the board at its word.

“This office cannot question the written assurance from the (board) that no public business was discussed during the dinner social,” Stenehjem wrote.