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UPDATE: State employee health insurance, rights delay ND legislative session end

Following along on bill revisions in a conference committee dealing with the Human Services Budget on Wednesday morning, April 26, 2017 in the Roughrider Room of the state capitol are from right, Rep. Kathy Hogan (D-Fargo), Rep. Jeffrey Magrum (R-Hazelton), Rep. Sebastian Ertelt (R-Lisbon) and Rep. Aaron McWilliams (R-Hillsboro). Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune1 / 3
House Appropriations Committee chariman Rep. Jeff Delzer (R-Underwood) outlines details in a spending bill during a House floor session on Wednesday afternoon, April 26, 2017. The 65th legislative assembly is nearing adjournment with Sine Die expected on Thursday. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune2 / 3
Legislators have only a few bills remaining as the 65th North Dakota Legislative Assembly winds down with adjournment expected to be on Thursday, April 27, 2017. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune3 / 3

BISMARCK— North Dakota lawmakers stumbled toward the session’s finish line Wednesday, April 26, after disagreements arose over public employee health insurance and the elimination of a specific position in the state auditor’s office.

Although legislative leaders had hoped to wrap up their work by Wednesday, lawmakers adjourned until Thursday morning with a handful of bills left in play.

The House and Senate differed on proposed language on the budget bill for the Public Employees Retirement System, but a conference committee ultimately agreed to an amendment that says the insurance contract for hospital, medical and prescription drug benefits coverage for active employees cannot be renewed for the the 2019-21 biennium. It requires the PERS Board to solicit bids for coverage during that period, with the primary bid being for a self-insurance plan.

"We have an agreement with (Sanford Health Plan)," Sen. Karen Krebsbach, R-Minot, said Wednesday morning. "We're trying to make sure that we don't overstep boundaries in any way."

PERS chose Sanford as its health insurance provider in 2015, when disagreements over the PERS budget bill and the Sanford contract delayed the end of the legislative session. Although Sanford documents refer to the agreement as a six-year contract, PERS Executive Director Sparb Collins said it’s a two-year contract with the opportunity for two two-year renewals.

“Morally, we felt that we should have stayed with the six (years), but we also have to be realistic around here,” said Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, who added that legislators believe the law is on their side if a lawsuit arises.

A Sanford spokesman deferred comment late Wednesday afternoon until lawmakers came closer to resolving the PERS budget.

House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, said Wednesday evening that “we’re pleased this is going forward.” He said the bill wouldn’t commit PERS to a self-funded model, although he said that could help control costs and provide plan flexibility.

The House and Senate have yet to take a final vote on the PERS budget bill.

Auditor position

Meanwhile, Gov. Doug Burgum vetoed the budget bill for the Office of the State Auditor over amendment language to eliminate a position "held by an identified, classified employee," according to a veto message he signed Tuesday. Burgum said that violates the separation of powers and "the fundamental due process rights afforded to all classified employees in the state of North Dakota."

Rep. Mike Nathe, R-Bismarck, who chaired the conference committee that debated the auditor's budget, said the decision was a budgetary one, given that the position was among the highest paid in the office and lawmakers are looking to trim agency budgets. He added that the attorney general's office said the Legislature was within its rights to single out that position, which Nathe identified as the performance audit manager.

Liz Brocker, spokeswoman for the attorney general, declined to comment on legal advice given by the office.

"We had to hit a number," Nathe said. "We wanted to make sure that that salary itself was eliminated, versus having the auditor eliminate two other job positions to get to his number."

The Senate attached the auditor budget to the funding bill for the Office of Management and Budget, but the House voted to override Burgum’s veto later later in the day.

Asked whether he still planned to eliminate that specific position, State Auditor Josh Gallion said they would follow human resources policies, and said he couldn’t comment on “who this will wind up affecting.” House Bill 1004 includes almost $9.5 million in general fund spending.

“My focus is taking that appropriation and we’re going to do the best we can for the taxpayers of North Dakota,” Gallion said.

Higher education

The Senate passed the higher education budget Wednesday with funding provisions for Dickinson State University.

The amendments reduce the cut DSU faced in the upcoming biennium by using state general funds, local dollars and other sources to boost operational funding. It also sets aside $3.1 million to pay off debt related to the Biesiot Activities Center, which Wardner called a “cloud” hanging over the university.  

The amendment also prohibits DSU from discontinuing any portion of its nursing program during the 2017-19 biennium.

The city of Dickinson and Stark County agreed to use some of their funding from oil tax revenue toward DSU “because it’s such a cornerstone of our community,” said Rep. Vicky Steiner, R-Dickinson.

Rep. Mike Lefor, R-Dickinson, said the university will still see about a $3 million funding cut compared with what the campus received for 2015-17.

The Dickinson State funding emerged as a point of contention between the House and Senate late last week, when a Senate committee attached funding for the university to the OMB bill. Carlson said it wasn’t “germane” to the overall bill, and the House declined to accept the legislation after it passed the Senate.

The DSU funding has since been taken off of the OMB bill.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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