Local legislators discuss plans for the last half of session
Local legislators gave an update to their constituents about bills passing through the North Dakota House and Senate at the final Coffee with the Legislators on Saturday morning.
The Legislature is headed into its second half, with some of the toughest days to come within the next two weeks, Rep. Vicky Steiner, R-District 37, said.
"It's this time in the session when the big decisions are starting to be made," she said. "Next week is going to be really intense."
Those present for the weekend's event were Rep. Mike Schatz, R-District 36, Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-District 37, Steiner and Rep. Mike Lefor, R-District 37,. Sen. Kelly Armstrong, R-District 36, and Rep. Luke Simons, R-District 36, were not present at Dickinson City Hall on Saturday morning.
Lefor said the House has about 100 bills left to go and then conference committees will begin. A conference committee consists of three senators and three representatives who are chosen by legislative leadership to get a bill that both houses can agree upon. For example, if the House were to send a bill to the Senate and the Senate decides to make changes to the bill it would need to go to a conference committee in order to make sure everyone agrees upon its form before it goes back up for a final vote in both houses.
Lefor said most regular committee work should be finished within the next week and then everyone will focus on the bills that are left on the floor. He said he expects this to be a busy time for legislators.
"I would suspect we're going to have some long days this week in kicking out those bills because on the House side for some reason we're liking debating a whole lot more and getting up and arguing our position on certain legislation," he said. "So when the conference committees come together that's when a lot of the appropriations bills are worked on more specifically in conference committees."
He said very rarely do the House and Senate agree completely on appropriations bills.
Schatz, who sits on the appropriations committee and is a member of the Energy and Education subcommittee, noted they will likely being working long days as well.
"We'll probably go from 8 in the morning to 8 at night or something like that because now we're getting into the crunch time and we want to get out as soon as we can," he said.
DSU funding headed to conference committee
Lefor noted that the funding for Dickinson State University will likely come from a conference committee, as it was with the last biennium. He said both he and Wardner have met with various leaders about DSU's situation and have offered an amendment on a bill.
The amendment will be introduced in a conference committee on higher education. Lefor said because DSU has already seen a decline in student population, they have already had to cut a "tremendous amount of faculty." Because of that he and Thomas Mitzel, president of DSU, talked with the chair of the appropriations committee and came up with an amendment that would "fund DSU operations for the next two years." He said the amendment would also include a plan for the following biennium.
"We don't just want to look at it for this biennium," Lefor said. "It's a four year solution we believe. We have also in that amendment put a $3.1 million to pay the banks that hold the note on the Biesiot Activity Center, which is currently in litigation."
The amendment also includes funding for the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library to help them get going on the project in terms of operations. Overall, Lefor thought it was a good conversation about DSU's situation.
"I thought it was a great conversation," he said. "I'm cautiously optimistic as I always am but we always knew that this process would go to conference committee as these issues typically do."
Wardner said it was important for the Legislature to take into account how much sales tax the state has been receiving during this biennium, when this month's budget forecast came out.
"We're all watching for the revenue that comes in in the month of March, the one we're in now," Wardner said. "... If it stops sliding we're going to be very happy."
He also said since rig counts appear to be going up in the Oil Patch, it will hopefully increase the amount of sales and income tax coming into the state.
"You need to understand that when they came in the first time, they had to buy their rigs and they brought them in and they paid sales tax on those rigs," he said. "That helped our cash register jingle. Well they don't have to buy them anymore, they're here. So we're not going to see that, what we'll see is some of the sales tax revenue increase because of the profit that they do with the completion of the wells. ... It does affect our general fund activity when there's activity out here but we don't expect anything like we've had in the past."
Steiner said the House has added an amendment to a bill which would authorize the state to look at the voter initiated measures and the effects that out of state dollars can have on those measures. She said a committee would be started to see if the process is working well.
The committee would include the following: the chief justice of the North Dakota Supreme Court, who would be the chairman, an appointee from the Secretary of State's office, multiple appointees from both houses of the Legislature, as well as seven citizens, who would be appointed by the governor.
Two of the citizen appointees would have to be past or current members of a committee for an initiated or referred measure. These people would be able to understand various issues, such as signature deadlines, Steiner said. The governor has to post notice of who has been nominated so the public can weigh-in on the nominees.
Steiner noted the Senate wanted a member of the Greater North Dakota Chamber, the newspaper association, the Farmers Bureau, and the Farmers Union to be on the committee as voting members. However, the House wants to make those individuals ex-officio, so they may give input but not vote on the matters, Steiner said.
"We want citizens to be able to vote and (those groups are) going to give (their) input," Steiner said. "... The reason that we said they can't be from that group is because we really don't want to have undue influence, we really want it to be citizen directed."
The committee would simply study the process and would not actually change anything, she noted.