70 percent of bills advance in N.D. Legislature in first half of session
BISMARCK - North Dakota lawmakers gave their initial stamp of approval to nearly 600 bills before breaking for a three-day recess on Thursday, and a new state revenue forecast in mid-March will set the stage for the second half of the session.
BISMARCK – North Dakota lawmakers gave their initial stamp of approval to nearly 600 bills before breaking for a three-day recess on Thursday, and a new state revenue forecast in mid-March will set the stage for the second half of the session.
House and Senate lawmakers advanced a combined 599 bills – 70 percent of the 852 bills introduced – during the session’s first 38 days, while 249 bills failed and four were withdrawn. The vast majority of the bills will now be taken up in the opposite chamber.
Gov. Jack Dalrymple said Thursday that legislators had made good progress leading into crossover.
“As we enter the session’s second half, we will continue working with the Legislature to achieve our priorities, which include strong support for education and public safety, property tax reform, providing additional tax relief, and enhancements for pipeline integrity and rail safety,” he said in a statement.
Republicans, who hold a two-thirds majority, and Democrats each highlighted a number of bills that advanced, most notably the “surge” bill, which passed both chambers with wide bipartisan support to provide $1.1 billion in emergency funding for primarily western North Dakota but also counties and cities across the state.
Dalrymple signed the fast-tracked bill on Tuesday, releasing funds to give communities a head start on road construction and other infrastructure projects this spring and summer.
A more contentious debate looms in the second half over House Bill 1176, which would boost the share of oil production tax revenue being returned to the top oil-producing counties and their cities, schools and townships.
Western GOP lawmakers led by Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, proposed in September revamping the formula to raise counties’ share of revenue from 25 percent to 60 percent, with a corresponding drop in the state’s share from 75 percent to 40 percent. But the House on Thursday voted to send the bill to the Senate with a split of 70 percent state, 30 percent local.
“That is a stunning change in approach from what was pledged during campaign season,” said Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks.
Wardner said this week that the Senate is “going to start a little higher” than the 30 percent local share. Schneider said if the local share isn’t increased, lawmakers may be looking at another surge bill next session.
“We need to learn from history in this,” he said.
Lawmakers plan to adjust spending bills and budgets after they receive the next revenue forecast on March 18. They’re hoping for better news than the January forecast, which predicted that slumping crude oil prices would reduce oil and tax collections to about $4.3 billion in 2015-17 – down more than $4 billion from the December forecast used to prepare the governor’s $15.7 billion budget.
Among the other initially approved pieces of legislation highlighted by the parties and governor on Thursday:
- The House passed a bill to reduce individual and corporate income taxes by 10 percent, the least ambitious of four GOP-led proposals but the most viable option given the state’s revenue forecast, Republicans said. The Senate supported Dalrymple’s recommendation for $100 million in individual relief and $25 million in corporate relief.
- The Senate passed an extension of the 12 percent property tax credit created last session. Democrats pointed out that while their bill extends the full 12 percent credit, GOP senators trimmed it by 1 percent to make room for the governor’s proposed takeover of some social services costs, which they argued is more permanent property tax relief.
- Senate lawmakers approved $6 million in state grants to support early childhood education programs run by both public and private providers. Dalrymple also signed a fast-tracked bill requiring high school students to pass a 100-question civics exam based on the U.S. citizenship test before they can graduate, starting with the class of 2016-17.
- The “small trigger” tax exemption for new oil wells was extended by House lawmakers through June 2017 to entice companies to keep drilling. The trigger, which is based on the price of crude oil, kicked in Feb. 1. It lowers the oil extraction tax from 6.5 percent to 2 percent on the first 75,000 barrels produced or first $4.5 million of gross value during the first 18 months after the well is completed.
- The Senate narrowly passed a Democrat-led bill with bipartisan sponsorship to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Senate Bill 2279 is expected to face a tougher road in the House.
- Senate Republicans voted to partially lift the state’s anti-corporate farming law to allow for corporate ownership of dairy and swine operations.
- The House approved three of four firearms bill introduced, including one that would allow those with a concealed weapons license to carry in schools with permission from the school and training from local law enforcement. The bill that failed would have allowed elected officials to carry in the Capitol.
Lawmakers also have acted on 57 of the 84 resolutions introduced, passing 49 of them and rejecting eight. The crossover date for resolutions is March 12.