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Lawmakers kickstart interim work

BISMARCK -- State Sen. Ray Holmberg said Monday the interim legislative session isn't an exact science, comparing it to oil drilling.

"Some studies really hit oil, others you find out after two meetings there isn't much there," the Republican from Grand Forks said.

A handful of lawmakers joined Holmberg at the Capitol on Monday for the first meeting of the interim session to set the agenda for what the interim Legislature will tackle between now and the 64th legislative session in 2015.

Holmberg chairs the 17-member Legislative Management Committee, which oversees the interim session. Members discussed 69 studies that were approved by the 63rd Legislature and narrowed their list of priorities to 41, discarding the other 28.

"Some were hot-button issues during the session and will continue to be during the interim," Holmberg told the committee.

They also authorized a questionnaire to see what committees lawmakers want to sit on during the interim.

The Legislature required Legislative Management to look at 10 of the 41 studies during the interim, including health care reform, Workforce Safety and Insurance, likely changes to the oil industry, methods to ensure the Legacy Fund provides lasting benefits, and the new funding formulas for K-12 and higher education.

Both education studies require the creation of two new interim committees, the Education Funding Committee and Higher Education Funding Committee.

The session has seven main interim committees: Administrative Rules, Employee Benefits Programs, Information Technology, Legacy and Budget Stabilization Fund Advisory Board, Legislative Management, Budget Section, and Legislative Audit and Fiscal Review.

Holmberg said that during the last interim session, lawmakers looked at 43 studies. In 2009-10, they studied 63, with 53 studied in 2007-08 and 44 in 2005-06.

And now, with many tax-related studies, both Holmberg and Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, hope some solutions come out of the interim to address property tax issues.

"I hope we have a goal of trying to reduce the impact of property taxes," Holmberg said. "At some point we have to determine the one path to do it. With the major changes this session, we will find out if it actually delivered relief."

Lawmakers passed more than $1.1 billion in tax relief this session.

With that, Wardner expects to see a large study on the state's tax structure.

"I'm hoping some solutions will be found and will be passed," he said. "A lot of times the interim committees come up with good ideas that will be shot down by the Legislature."

But Monday's meeting left some expecting more, like Sen. Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks.

Of the 41 studies, Schneider said he was surprised none of them relates to housing issues.

One study to look into crew camps around western North Dakota was shot down, he pointed out.

Like he pushed during the Legislative session, he would like lawmakers in the interim session to have some long-term planning, and if they do, follow up with it.

"The 2011-12 interim looked at the issue with the help of a few statewide planning programs, but there was no follow-up," he said, talking about the state's 2020 & Beyond initiative, a 20-year development plan.

The committee also approved the schedule for the 2015 regular legislative session. Lawmakers will have their organizational session Dec. 1-3, 2014, and will gavel into session Jan. 6, 2015 -- leaving April 29, 2015, the last day of the 80 days they can constitutionally meet.

Legislative Management will meet again June 10 at the Capitol, when the interim committees will be established and can begin to move forward with the studies.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.