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GF Legislators agree on support for UAVs, disagree on UND med school

There was a lot of agreement, and a few disagreements, on Saturday when Grand Forks-area legislators met with constituents and reported on their work in Bismarck.

There was a lot of agreement, and a few disagreements, on Saturday when Grand Forks-area legislators met with constituents and reported on their work in Bismarck.

Lawmakers said they were all in favor of getting more funding for the Base Realignment Impact Committee, a group working to reduce the impact of the loss of the flying tanker mission at Grand Forks Air Force Base. Most of that work is focused on creating opportunities in unmanned aircraft, a new mission at the base.

Chamber President and BRIC member Barry Wilfahrt thanked lawmakers for the $4 million allocated last session and asked for more of the same. Wilfahrt noted one of the items funded made big progress Saturday, referencing the signing of a lease between UND and the Air Force to open an unmanned aircraft training center at the base.

"We're all going to pull in the same direction," Sen. Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks, promised. Losing the tanker mission at the base was tough, but getting the drones is better, he said, like trading in GM stocks and buying Google back in 1999.

Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, who chairs the appropriations committee, said he'll work to get the funding through.



One area where lawmakers clashed was the funding of an expansion at UND's School of Medicine and Health Sciences with money now used to fight tobacco use in the state. The school's expansion would help train more doctors and other health care workers to meet the rising needs of an aging population. But using tobacco control funding could destroy efforts to keep teens away from smoking and help adults quit.

Theresa Knox, a member of the Grand Forks Tobacco Free Coalition, reminded lawmakers that the tobacco control program was voted into law by voters in 2008.

Holmberg, who's a sponsor of the bill to give funding of that program to the medical school, said the bill's changed and there would still be tobacco funding. He noted that while the constitution gives voters the right to pass initiated measures, as they did in 2008, it also gives the Legislature the power to overturn those measures with a two-thirds vote.

Some Republicans who profess a dislike of smoking, Sen. Lonnie Laffen, R-Grand Forks, and Rep. Curt Kreun, R-Grand Forks, among them, were noncommittal. The bill's still evolving and they'll wait and see what its final form looks like before deciding how to vote on it.

Rep. Stacey Dahl, R-Grand Forks, said she's committed to med school expansion and, if it comes down to choosing between that and tobacco control, she'll pick the medical school.

Schneider said the bill takes two seemingly diametrically opposed issues and lumps them together. Funding the medical school may get the state more doctors, he said, but killing tobacco control would ensure the state needs more doctors.

Rep. Eliot Glassheim, D-Grand Forks, accused bill sponsors of playing a game. If they want to expand the medical school, there are other funding methods, such as increasing the tobacco tax, which was recently rejected, or tapping extra money in the permanent oil trust fund or using the rainy day fund that is meant for hard times but hasn't been touched in 20 years.


Of note

-Rep. Mark Sanford, R-Grand Forks, said he's concerned about future shortfalls in the public employees' pen-sion. There are proposals to require more contributions into those funds and to switch to defined contribution plans, such as 401(k) plans.

-Rep. Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, complained that there have been too many bills seeking to constrain the uni-versity system. One was a bill that requires passing half the funding from out-of-state students directly to the state's general fund. Another would have the Legislature directly set university tuition and fees, taking control from the State Board of Higher Education; the bill was defeated in the House.

- Dahl reported that the State Mill and Elevator is back on track after a rough patch when commodities prices went wild. The mill, located in Grand Forks, is now making a profit that it can put back into the state's general fund.

- She also reported some progress on giving cities more flexibility on setting traffic fines, allowing them to be twice the state rate. A court ruling had required cities to follow the state rate, which cities complained are too low. Glassheim, who's also a Grand Forks City Council member, complained that a lot of the opponents of the bill are staunch conservatives who otherwise advocate local control. Yet on this issue they want uniform fines across the state, he said.

- Laffen said his committees have a lot of slack time right now while waiting for bills from the House, so he's been taking a look at state buildings. He's concluded that the state could probably save $20 million a year if it in-vested in energy efficiency measures, which, as an architect, he's a big advocate of.

Reach Tran at (701) 780-1248; (800) 477-6572, ext. 248; or send e-mail to ttran@gfherald.com .

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