Budget, cuts drive discussion during legislative forum
The rippling impacts of North Dakota budget discussions, including whether cuts unfairly targeted some programs at UND, solicited several questions and comments during a Saturday legislative forum in Grand Forks.
Audience members also posed questions and concerns on other topics, including a proposed moratorium on new wind farms and protection from discriminatory practices during the forum, hosted by the Chamber of Grand Forks-East Grand Forks.
Since the session began last month, legislators have trimmed $440 million of the projected $860 million shortfall in moves that closely follow Gov. Doug Burgum's recommendations, Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-District 17, said.
But those savings have come at an expense to full-time positions in several state departments, including 316 positions cut from higher education, Rep. Corey Mock, D-District 18, said.
About one-third of the positions in higher education were at UND.
"This is going to be a tough session," Mock said. "These are cuts that are going to affect families here in Grand Forks."
One of the problems fueling the budget problems is North Dakota's tax policy, said Mock, adding the state has greatly lowered its individual and corporate income tax rates.
The boom in the oil industry accommodated low income tax rates for individuals and companies, but it led to a situation where the state general fund is heavily dependent on sales tax.
Now as the revenues drop, the state is even having to eliminate incentives, such as the corporate income tax credit in established Renaissance Zones.
Sen. Lonnie Laffen, R-District 43, countered Mock's concerns, saying the state's revenue from income tax is the only one that has seen an increase. So while the rate fell, the total collected grew.
Bret Weber, a Grand Forks city council member, asked legislators about a bill to end the state's property tax relief credit program.
"I think it was a horrible idea for the Legislature to go into property tax at all," said Lafeen.
Mock agreed, saying it was an "unsustainable business" for the state to try to buy down mills in areas legislators can't control.
Donald Poochigian, a philosophy professor at UND, asked participating lawmakers if they approved of what he called an "obsession" with jobs that has led to the humanities programs at UND being whittled away.
He said UND was becoming "indiscernible" from a technical-vocational institute.
Poochigian criticized Burgum's interest in moving more towards online classrooms that remove human interaction.
Loren Liepold, the technical director of the UND Department of Theater Arts, echoed these concerns, saying arts and humanities were being pushed aside in favor of programs that support specific industries, such as the petroleum industry.
Since theater and music don't have the same economic impact, Liepold said, they are being targeted unfairly for cuts.
Liepold quoted 2013 figures from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, which estimated the performing arts are a $204 million industry.
Holmberg warned against legislators interfering too much on campus governance issues.
"The last thing you want is the Legislature to weigh in on those decisions on what happens on campus," he said.
Rep. Rich Becker, R-District 43, said he agreed with legislative restraint in responding to these administrative decisions.
"It's best for the legislature not to put our nose too far under the tent," he said.
Liepold also pointed to a bill that would create a moratorium halting development of wind energy in the state.
Participating legislators said the bill didn't have support among lawmakers.
"I can't imagine we'd create a moratorium that would ban an entire business in North Dakota," Laffen said.
Debbie Swanson, director of the Grand Forks Public Health Department, spoke in favor of a bill maintaining BreatheND, adding a competing Senate bill to move the organization's funding under the Department of Health would compromise its mission.
She said that plan would not sustain the program after dollars from a settlement with tobacco companies dry up.
Holmberg said the Health Department was capable of delivering a comprehensive program to eradicate smoking.
"It will look different," but will accomplish the same goal, he said.
Cindy Juntunen, a UND faculty member, asked the legislators about their "cultural competency," in reference to House Bill 1386, legislation which would have protected LGBT individuals from job and housing discrimination and from being refused service.
The anti-discrimination bill failed, as have similar bills in previous sessions.
Juntunen said her concern was whether or not the legislators were "unintentionally engaging in discriminatory practices."
Rep. Mark Owens, R-District 17, said he grew up in Alabama in the 1950s through the 1970s.
"I've seen discrimination and prejudice unlike anything I've ever seen in North Dakota," Owens said. "In the realm of influence I have, everyone will be treated fairly."
Rep. Lois Delmore, D-District 43, praised Juntunen for raising the issue.