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Lawmakers host open forum over weekend

Area lawmakers took the time Saturday morning to participate in an open forum at Dickinson Public Library, Coffee with Legislators, where they spoke on the work ongoing in the North Dakota Legislature and heard questions and comments from members of the public.

With the Southwest Water Authority's CEO Mary Massad moderating the morning's questions, Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner of District 37, Senator Jay Elkin of District 36 and Representatives Mike Lefor and Vicky Steiner, both District 37 spent more than an hour answering questions from the public. Below are a few of the issues they discussed.

This was the first of three scheduled Coffee with Legislators events to be held this year at the Library—the next one will be on March 23 at 10 a.m. Attendance is free.

Ethics Commission

Among the issues discussed were inquiries into the process of enacting the will of the people as determined by Measure 1 winning voter approval last election—an amendment to the state's constitution that sought to establish an ethics commission to oversee government. Rep. Lefor serves on the House Ethics Committee and spoke on the subject.

"There's no question ... that we want to have open, honest and transparent government," Lefor said. "Part of the concern with Measure 1, part of it is constitutional—I'm not saying that's a problem, but what I'm talking about it is ... there's areas of the amendment we cannot address," Lefor said. "Some of the concerns I've heard is that there are provisions in Measure 1 that are not defined."

He then acknowledged this was likely by design, to give the Legislature power to define those provisions.

"The people have spoken and passed Measure 1, so at the end of the day we need to make sure we do this in a thoughtful process and that's what we've done," Lefor said. "The chairman of our committee has done a good job of getting us information so we can ask good questions. On Thursday the Speaker of the House ... did a phenomenal job explaining the provisions to us."

The committee is absorbing a lot of information, Lefor said, and a big concern is about establishing "proper definitions" for an ethics commission, once one is formed.

"It'll be part Legislature and part Ethics Commission putting together these rules over the next several years," Lefor said. "The start date is, I believe, June 2021. That gives us some time."

He invited the public to continue to give their commentary over the coming two years.

Income Tax Elimination

Concern was raised concerning a proposal regarding the Legacy Income Tax Reduction Fund, which Rep. Vicky Steiner, a member of the House Finance and Taxation Committee, was supportive of. This was something put forward by that committee's chairman last month, a piece of legislation that would seek to effectively eliminate income tax in North Dakota and supplement that lost revenue with money drawn from the Legacy Fund.

"I became aware of some studies that showed states that don't have income tax do better on their gross domestic product; they actually grow their prosperity faster than states that do have income tax for some reason," Steiner said. "Several studies show states prosper better if they don't have income tax."

She cited Tennessee as an example, noting that Tennessee has been drawing in "millennials like crazy right now."

"We could always bring income tax back if we have to but we're just trying to put more money into people's pockets," Steiner said.

This was met with notable pushback from the audience, with multiple people speaking up against abolishing income tax, observing that this might open up the door to tax increases on other taxes, like sales tax.

"It makes more sense to leave it than to get rid of it," One person said. "You say you aren't raising (sales tax), well you aren't raising it now."

Presidential Library

Sen. Rich Wardner seemed fully against the idea of allocating $50 million from the Legacy Fund toward the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, a suggestion put forward by Gov. Doug Burgum.

"We don't have the money to give $50 million to the library. We have a lot of other priorities. We have behavioral health issues that ... we're working really hard to try to get a federal regulation waived so we can get Prairie St. John's in Fargo to come and provide services in Dickinson at the old St. Joe's hospital," Wardner said. "I'm not against the library, but we do not have $50 million."

Rep. Lefor also felt that the state's priorities lay elsewhere, though he admitted mixed feelings as well.

"There are far, far, far too many priorities ... that would come well above the Presidential Library," Lefor said. "That being said, there are other states that want that Presidential Library. I have mixed feelings on this."

Time zone change

There also is a proposed bill that would see the whole of North Dakota fall into the Central Time Zone. For Rep. Lefor, this was a matter he would only wish to see decided by the local powers that would be most affected.

"If we feel strong enough in (Stark) county that we want to be on the Central time zone, then we vote on it," Lefor said. "We can vote on it any time we want. Even if the Legislature were to approve it, they would still have to come to Dickinson ... to field comments on it. I will not support the time zone change because the state shouldn't tell us what to do, we should vote on it here."

Sen. Jay Elkin agreed that local control is a priority, and a priority he felt thankful the Legislature shared.

"I put this out on Facebook just for comments, and I received 579 comments back ... where I stand is, it's all about local control," Elkin said. "We're fortunate that we have a Legislature that is demanding local control is first and foremost. We're just doggone fortunate on that."

Behavioral Health

Wardner said that there's ongoing debate about seeking a waiver from a federal regulation, the Medicaid Institutions for Mental Diseases (IMD) exclusion, which prohibits the use of federal Medicaid financing for care provided to most patients in mental health and substance use disorder residential treatment facilities larger than 16 beds. For Dickinson, this exclusion stands in the way of bringing in-patient behavioral health services to the area, and is something Wardner vowed to fight for.

"The department of human services is kind of balking on that so we're trying to put the pressure on them. We're hoping to get a demonstration, we just need one to get them started," Wardner said. "They're reluctant to do it, it's called IMD, I won't go into it ... it essentially says you can only have 16 beds. Prairie St. Johns comes in here, they say they need more than 16 beds ... they need at least 24."

Wardner said the need for these services was great.

"I had a principal call me yesterday about an issue in a school around here, behavioral health with a student, a fourth grader—the individual wanted to commit suicide and when it was all said and done, nothing was done," Wardner said. "That child should have been put somewhere where they could see some help. Ladies and gentleman, that's a big time need."

Wardner also issued his support for the behavioral health resources provided by the women's prison in New England, which fights its own political battle following the Governor's suggestion that the facility be relocated to Bismarck.

"The prison goes along with it. Because we have licensed addiction counselors working in the prison, we are starting to build a culture here," Wardner said. "If they go away, we're going to lose those addiction counselors. So it all goes together. We have a lot of things on the plate."

Medical Marijuana

An emotional public comment came from Justin Wilhelm-Lorentz, who described the hardships he's endured in the years following a severe car accident.

"I had two vertebrae in my neck shattered. I had three lower vertebrae all broken," he told the legislators. "I am sitting here struggling in so much pain, and I want to know why nothing's being made?"

He described the quantity of opioids prescribed to him, and lamented that his seven-year-old daughter was now trained in how to use narcan in case he overdoses. He wanted to know why there remained a sense of inaction in the implementation of medical marijuana in the state.

"Nobody is more frustrated than I am that we are not in full operation on marijuana or as we call it cannabis now," Wardner said. "That was not a constitutional measure, that was just a measure that was put on the ballot and passed, and we have to make some adjustments."

Wardner said that medical marijuana should be available as of this month, but also noted that only two locations in the state are able to grow it and one of those places isn't even in operation yet. Production was initially to have caps placed on it, but Warder said that he was told that placing caps on the production of cannabis was going to stymie the demand for it.

"So we just took the cap off," Wardner said. "We have no cap on the growth. Fargo and Bismarck have the growing centers, and they have the green light to grow as much as needed."

Wardner told Wilhelm-Lorentz that many advocates in similar situations were fighting on his behalf in Bismarck. Representative Lefor asked Wilhelm-Lorentz to give him contact information following the event, and vowed to visit the specific pieces of legislation with which he was concerned.