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Amy Dalrymple, Forum News Service, Published May 04 2013

North Dakota GOP, Dems split over success of longest session in history

BISMARCK – In the early morning hours Saturday after North Dakota lawmakers wrapped up the longest-ever legislative session, Republicans praised the session as the greatest in history while Democrats said it was full of “squandered opportunities.”

House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, told House members after 4 a.m. Saturday as they closed out the session that legislators should be proud for keeping their promise to provide property tax relief while making major investments and setting aside money for a rainy day.

“It doesn’t make a difference what day you finish, it’s the quality of the work you do,” said Carlson, speaking on the House floor about three hours before the deadline of the 80th and final legislative day.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple, in a 5 a.m. news conference, complimented the work of legislators, emphasizing the more than $850 million investment in property tax relief, landmark reforms in funding for education and unprecedented funding for statewide infrastructure.

“I truly believe it will go down in the history as one of the greatest, if not the greatest session, in our state history,” Dalrymple said.

However, Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks, said Republicans should have had a “laser focus” on property tax relief on the heels of last year’s failed Measure 2 instead of leaving the priority unresolved on the last day and devolving into a “circus atmosphere” Friday.

“This session was notable for its misplaced priorities and also some squandered opportunities,” Schneider said.

While education spending and property tax reform dominated the final days, the Legislature put itself in the national spotlight by passing the tightest abortion laws in the country and setting up a possible challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling.

The Legislature also spent time developing a new system of governing higher education, which still must be approved by voters, and tighter drunken driving laws.

The final push

The final day of the session began with House lawmakers defeating a bill for K-12 education and property tax relief, prompting a daylong series of meetings to reach a compromise.

Shortly before midnight Friday, legislators agreed on Senate Bill 2036, which provides $200 million in property tax relief through a state-paid tax credit.

About 2:30 a.m. Saturday, House lawmakers unanimously agreed on House Bill 1013, which provides funding for K-12 education that had been defeated earlier in the House. Senators followed shortly with their own unanimous vote.

The compromise bill, which includes $2.14 billion for the Department of Public Instruction’s budget, was about $53 million less than what Gov. Jack Dalrymple recommended for K-12 education.

The bill also provided another $656 million in property tax relief through a new K-12 funding formula that shifts the largest share of education costs from school districts to the state.

Spending: $4.6 billion

Overall, legislators approved $4.6 billion in ongoing appropriations, a 30.9 percent increase over the $3.5 billion in spending last biennium, Carlson said.

The ending fund balance will be $87 million, he said.

Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said he’s proud of the investments legislators made, particularly the investments for oil-impacted communities in western North Dakota.

“We’re blessed to have the resources to do this,” Wardner said.

House Minority Leader Kenton Onstad, D-Parshall, said while there are more needs for the Oil Patch, he is pleased with the level of support approved for the west. Onstad said he’s particularly glad legislators approved $122 million for a new University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences, which will help improve access to health care for western North Dakota.

Rep. Bob Skarphol, R-Tioga, who sponsored a bill that created a long-range to deal with the impact of oil development, expressed disappointment that final version of the plan, while providing more than $1 billion in aid, did not look beyond the upcoming biennium.

Rep. Kathy Hawken, R-Fargo, said she wishes legislators would have done more for K-12 funding, but she’s happy with the investment in property tax relief.

“Hopefully the citizens of North Dakota will feel like we did keep our promise and we did provide property tax relief,” Hawken said.

All together, including corporate and individual income tax relief, North Dakotans will receive

$1.1 billion in tax relief, Carlson said.

Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, said he’s pleased with the amount of dollars for property tax relief but would like to see more reform.

“We do need more reform, but we’re making progress,” Koppelman said.

Other highlights of the session:

• $2.3 billion to rebuild and repair roads and upgrade infrastructure.

• $2.5 billion to address the needs of rapidly growing Oil Patch communities.

• $515 million in water and flood control projects.

The longest session

Under the state constitution, legislators meet up to 80 days every two years. They opened session at 8 a.m. Friday and had until 7 a.m. Saturday to meet their deadline.

Previously, the longest session was 79 days in 2009.

Throughout the night, especially between midnight and 2 a.m., legislators had a lull in action while they waited for Legislative Council to review the amendments adopted by the conference committees.

To pass the time, legislators said farewells, cleaned their desks and snapped group photos. At about 2 a.m., Sen. John Warner, D-Ryder, sang to those in attendance with lobbyist Levi Andrist accompanying on the piano.

The final act was approving the budget for the Office of Management and Budget.

Other issues

Outside of budget, tax and infrastructure issues, other key issues the Legislature dealt with included:

• Social issues: The Legislature passed four anti-abortion bills and one resolution that will be on the 2014 ballot asking voters to amend the state constitution.

The bills drew national attention, as they are now the strictest abortion laws in the country, prohibiting an abortion as early as six weeks, requiring an abortion-performing doctor to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, and prohibiting an abortion based on the child’s gender or genetic abnormality.

If the resolution is passed by the voters, the constitution will include the language, “The inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development must be recognized and protected.”

Wardner said earlier last week that the Legislature very easily was sidetracked with the abortion measures.

“There was a lot of public attention,” he said. “It took the attention off some of the more important matters.”

Lawmakers also said this session that people with concealed weapons permits can take a firearm into a church, with permission by a church leader, but defeated a bill that would have allowed them to carry onto public school property.

• Higher education: The lack of what some say is a unified North Dakota University System, mixed with a new leader and puzzling events in the past year on some campuses, prompted lawmakers to try to reform the higher education system.

Carlson introduced a resolution that originally would have eliminated the part-time State Board of Higher Education, which oversees the 11 public institutions and more than 48,000 students, from the constitution and replace it with one commissioner of the Department of Higher Education appointed by the governor. The bill was amended to remove the state board and chancellor position, and replace it with a three-member, full-time commission.

Voters will decide the governance structure, as the measure was put on the 2014 ballot.

Similarly, lawmakers upset at how Chancellor Hamid Shirvani has been leading the university system attempted to provide about $800,000 to allow the state board to buy out his contract.

Senate lawmakers put the money into the university system budget, but it was later removed by the House.

“We were having a soap opera over higher ed instead of having serious discussion on how to take higher ed to the next level,” Schneider said earlier last week.

• Law and order: After two high-profile fatal drunken-driving accidents in 2012, there was a push to toughen North Dakota’s driving under the influence laws.

While some complained that the end result didn’t go far enough, the state did double the fine for a first-time offender and made the penalties stiffer for repeat offenders.

Lawmakers also passed a bill to make some forms of animal abuse a felony – a first for the state.

Lawmakers also approved three new judgeships the help ease strain on a judicial system that has seen its caseload grow with the oil boom, prompting one judge to call the system “conveyor-belt justice.” One new judgeship will be in Fargo, one in Williston and another yet to be determined in northwest North Dakota.


Forum News Service reporter TJ Jerke contributed to this story.