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Lawmakers update public on medical marijuana, revenue forecast

Dickinson's state lawmakers discussed the Legislature's actions relating to the medical marijuana measure and the updated state revenue forecast at Coffee with the Legislators Saturday morning. Photo by Ellie Potter/The Dickinson Press

Dickinson area lawmakers defended the Legislature’s move to delay the implementation of legalized medical marijuana until the end of the legislative session at Saturday morning’s Coffee with the Legislators.

House Majority Caucus Leader Mike Lefor, R-District 37, noted he was bombarded with constituent concerns that the Legislature was ignoring the will of the people, after the public passed the initiated ballot measure in November.

But Lefor noted the measure, if enacted as passed, would not have provided the public legalized use of medical marijuana.

“Measure 5 did nothing to decriminalize the possession and use of marijuana for medical purposes,” Lefor said at the forum. “We want to do what the people told us they want – they want medical marijuana. But the initiated measure was sorely lacking in a lot of things.”

Sen. Kelly Armstrong, R-District 36, pointed out that the measure was written so that the sale could only be made by non-profits. He noted that North Dakota does not have state-run non-profits, so this element of the measure must have come from another state. North Dakota has federal non-profits, and no one can receive federal non-profit status if they are selling marijuana, Armstrong said.

Because the measure did not legalize the sale of marijuana under the original measure text, the likelihood of a dispensary ever opening would have been slim because the first sale in such establishment would have been a felony, he said.

“I’m just guessing that would probably curtail most investiture in that,” Armstrong said.

He noted that the initiated measure was almost “counter intuitive” to actually legalizing medical marijuana. As a result, the state’s department of health, attorney general’s office and Legislature are now working on the bill.

“It is going to be an imperfect solution to a really bad ballot measure,” Armstrong said.

The bill passed through both chambers with one abstaining vote, Lefor said. It will ensure the access to high-quality medical marijuana to those with legal certification. However, the issue is further complicated because recreational and medical marijuana use and sale currently violates federal law, he said. As a result, medical marijuana cannot be purchased with a check and requires cash because of federal restrictions.

Bills in the Legislature go through the legislative council – a team of lawyers hired by the state – who make sure the bill’s language is consistent with the North Dakota Century Code, Lefor said. When people use an initiated measure process rather than the legislative council, there can be unintended consequences. Lefor suggested that initiated measures should all go through the council in order to prevent these consequences.

The Legislature is now “left to clean up the mess” as the state fixes the bill’s text to better reflect what the people wanted with the measure’s passage, Lefor said.

Revenue forecast response

Though the lawmakers noted the revenue shortage the state will face in the current and coming bienniums, they were optimistic about the state’s ability to get through the next few years.  

“Now, North Dakota being a conservative state, the Legislature over the past several years has been very conservative in their approach,” Lefor said. “Obviously that’s a very good thing because what’s happening now is that the $300 million that’s in the property tax relief fund is already there in cash – it’s been accumulating over the last two years.”

The money for this fund will begin accumulating this biennium for use in the 2019-21 biennium, he said.

He also denounced Gov. Doug Burgum’s call to increase the amount of oil revenue added to the general fund from $300 million to $900 million, noting the instability of commodity-based revenue, something he does not think the general fund should rely on.

Armstrong said, though the state’s spending has increased over the last decade, most of it was justified and a lot of it was available because of the surplus.

“It’s going to be easier to cut a lot of this because of the growth in the budgets over the last 10 years,” he said. “There’s fat to trim, but at the same time, every time you start cutting money, you’re talking about people and services, so it’s important to view all of these things as we move through it in those types of areas.”

Rep. Luke Simons, R-District 36, said the Legislature has cut about $1 billion out of the budget for the coming biennium, though he would like to see more money cut. He noted all commodities are down this year, so people will feel “a little pinch” in the meantime. As a rancher, he said he took a 60 percent decrease in his income this year in cattle sales.

Higher Education

Rep. Mike Schatz, R-District 36, is the only Dickinson area legislator on an appropriations committee. This week the committee looked at Senate Bill 2003, relating to higher education funding. The bill was “fairly manageable” and reduced about 500 to 800 employees across the state from higher education budgets – a significant reduction, he said.

“That has always been something that bothered me a little bit about how much we were spending on it,” Schatz said. “I thought we were spending too much in prior sessions, but that’s going to have to come to an end, and it’s going to have to be a belt-tightening across the board pretty much.”

Lefor reported the subcommittee on higher education listened to Dickinson State University President Thomas Mitzel’s presentation on the school’s plan to handle various levels of cuts if necessary – something Lefor felt the subcommittee was receptive to.

“But we also explained, in my opinion… that DSU had poor leadership in the past, and a foundation that made some mistakes,” Lefor said. “So right now we’re paying for those mistakes – in terms of lost revenue and in terms of a $3.8 million debt to the Biesiot Activity Center when $15 million had been raised for a $16 million facility. … We’re anxious to put the issues that DSU has faced in the past.”

He pointed to Mitzel’s leadership and noted that he and Mitzel were working with the school’s vice president of finance on a four-year plan to “right the whole ship,” Lefor said.

Property tax notification  

Rep. Vicky Steiner, R-District 37, informed the public about S.B. 2288, a bill that would give people more of a notice regarding changes in property taxes. If enacted and passed as currently written, property owners would receive a consolidated tax statement, which would estimate how much the person will owe in taxes that year. It would also spell out which, if any, political subdivision raised taxes.

The sheet would include what the taxpayer paid the previous year for comparison. At the bottom of the notice, the time of the hearing relating to the taxes from the city, county and school district will be listed as well, so citizens can attend and better understand any changes on their tax statement, she said.

This notice will come before the person’s actual tax statement and will only serve as an estimate, Steiner said.     

70 days

Ultimately, the lawmakers are hoping to finish the legislative session in 70 days, Schatz said.

“We’re going to need more time later on, maybe a year from now, but we’re going to have to come back and readjust some things,” Schatz said. “We don’t know what our economy is going to do. If we keep not taking in enough money, well then we’re going to have to make more cuts in programs and other things are going to have to be cut.”