BISMARCK — North Dakota lawmakers have had a few days to relax ahead of a grueling second half of the biennial legislative session, kicking off on Wednesday, March 3.
The North Dakota House of Representatives and Senate adjourned last week for the customary “crossover” break after voting on all the bills still left in their respective chambers.
Lawmakers started the session in January with 847 bills and 61 resolutions to consider. The chambers have whittled that down to 643 pieces of legislation, with nearly 60% originating in the House and about 40% coming from the Senate.
When lawmakers return to Bismarck this week, each chamber will consider legislation the other chamber approved and hold hearings and votes on the measures.
The 141 legislators will have big decisions to make when they get back. Here’s a rundown of the major issues they’ll face.
Putting the Legacy Fund to work
Republican leaders have declared their intentions to show North Dakotans this session that the state’s massive oil tax savings account is working to better their lives.
At the heart of the plans to tap the $8.2 billion Legacy Fund is a proposal to issue bonds to pay for major infrastructure endeavors, including the Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion project.
The House approved a $680 million bonding bill last month, but Senate Appropriations Chairman Ray Holmberg said he expects the higher chamber to bump up the price tag if revenue projections come back sunny. The package leans on Legacy Fund earnings to pay back investors over 20 years or less.
Another bill passed by the House would draw a blueprint for spending Legacy Fund earnings in future budget cycles. The proposal earmarks money for income tax relief, an energy fund and infrastructure loans to cities and counties.
The lower chamber also advanced a bill that aims to put more front-end Legacy Fund investments into North Dakota companies and infrastructure projects. Supporters say the state is missing out on opportunities to invest in homegrown industry with the gobs of incoming oil tax revenue.
It may come as a surprise to outsiders that deeply conservative, mostly rural North Dakota could legalize recreational marijuana in the near future, but the idea has quickly picked up steam in the surrounding region.
With voters approving legalization measures in South Dakota and Montana last year, many North Dakota lawmakers believe their state is next.
That’s why a bipartisan group of legislators has pushed a detailed proposal to make recreational pot legal for adults in the state under stringent restrictions. Republicans leading the charge say they don’t want to see the drug legalized, but they believe the Legislature should write the rules for a pot program before the voters force their hand through a ballot measure.
The legalization bill won over enough conservatives to make it through the House, but it’ll face another test in the Senate, which has fewer libertarian-leaning Republicans who favor the idea.
A companion bill passed by the House would set the tax rates for legal pot at more than twice the levy for alcohol. As a backup in case the legalization measure fails, the House also approved a bill that would decriminalize possessing small amounts of marijuana.
Limiting the governor’s authority
The start of North Dakota's legislative session came on the heels of North Dakota's worst-in-the-nation fall COVID-19 surge and close to 40 executive orders approved by Gov. Doug Burgum during the last year's state of emergency. Though many legislators have said that bills looking to restrict the governor's emergency powers are not aimed specifically at the current officeholder, orders approved by Burgum like a statewide mask mandate and business restrictions have been heavily criticized by conservative residents and lawmakers.
Some proposals brought forward by lawmakers would make targeted curtailments to the governor's emergency powers, but a handful of sweeping bills have picked up the most traction among lawmakers.
One bill, introduced by Sen. Janne Myrdal, R-Edinburg, on the Senate side would cap a state of emergency at 30 days, requiring the governor to bring the Legislature into special session for a longer disaster. That bill advanced easily out of its chamber, while the House overwhelmingly approved two similar proposals. One would give the Legislature more control over the span of a state of emergency, and another would limit the length of a disaster declaration while curbing the ability for cities and counties to implement more restrictive emergency orders than those established on the statewide level.
The future of the North Dakota coal industry is also top of mind for many lawmakers this session. That's primarily because the state's largest coal-fired power plant, the 1,100 megawatt Coal Creek Station, is slated for closure late next year unless it can find a new owner. With the national coal industry on the decline, Republican leaders have made saving Coal Creek a high priority.
While lawmakers have considered an array of strategies to prop up the coal industry, including regulations on encroaching wind power, the biggest ticket items may come in the form of tax relief and research loans for the industry.
One bill supported by top Republicans would grant a $75 million tax holiday to the industry over the next five years. Separately, GOP leadership is looking to extend about $250 million in low interest loans to the coal industry when budget tallies are finalized by the end of the session, according to Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner. That number is "a moving target," Wardner said, with much of the money going toward research for carbon capture, expensive emerging technology that many state officials hope will make coal power more sustainable and profitable for the long term.
A few high-profile bills in the Republican-dominated Legislature have focused on conservative social issues. One bill that would restrict the participation of transgender athletes in high school sports has quickly emerged as some of the most polarizing legislation on the table this session, prompting a student protest at the Capitol and close to an hour of debate on the House floor. Still, the bill sailed out of that chamber easily.
Another bill that would allow schools to display the Ten Commandments in classrooms cleared the Senate by a wide margin. Lawmakers debated the particulars of the bill and its potential legal ramifications, with opponents from both parties arguing that it would all but guarantee federal lawsuits. But in the face of possible legal challenges, bill sponsor Sen. Janne Myrdal told colleagues that the costs of litigation would be outweighed by the good that displays of the religious text would do in alleviating certain social ills.
The North Dakota Legislature is known for passing some of the strictest anti-abortion laws in the nation, but there’s no such legislation left in the pipeline this year. Lawmakers killed two anti-abortion bills that would’ve likely been challenged in court, where the state has previously lost similar lawsuits.
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