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N.D. Legislature ends 5-day special session

BISMARCK North Dakota lawmakers wrapped up the special session this morning after providing millions of dollars in additional disaster relief and repealing a law requiring the University of North Dakota to keep its Fighting Sioux nickname. Deemed...

BISMARCK

North Dakota lawmakers wrapped up the special session this morning after providing millions of dollars in additional disaster relief and repealing a law requiring the University of North Dakota to keep its Fighting Sioux nickname.

Deemed by lawmakers as the most important work of the session, the disaster relief bill will help flood-damaged communities and oil and gas counties struggling to keep up with oil development.

"I think it's a good piece of work," House Majority Leader Al Carlson of Fargo said. "We did as much as we could to be a bridge to the future."

Western North Dakota lawmakers said they were pleased with the additional help for the oil-producing counties. The bill includes an additional $30 million for the oil and gas impact grant fund, with priority going to emergency service requests.

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It also includes $5 million to allow for distributions of $1.25 million to each new major oil-producing county. Legislators say Hettinger County will be among those to benefit.

"This will, of course, help us with the planning for our infrastructure and, of course, we all need to be ahead of the curve in the oil development as the oil moves south of Dickinson," Rep. Mike Schatz, R-New England, said.

Sen. Don Schaible, R-Mott, said the provision allows counties to be proactive.

"It will not only save us headaches but also probably money and infrastructure issues," he said. "If we can get ahead of the ball game, learn from the problems that already exist, it's going to help us and the whole state in the future."

Democrats wanted to see $50 million in additional oil and gas impact grant funding. Schaible said he thinks $30 million is enough for now and additional money can be considered when lawmakers return in January 2013.

Legislators also agreed to increase the state's allowable tax credits from $4 million to $15 million for the development of affordable housing. Sen. George Nodland, R-Dickinson, said this will make "a tremendous difference" in western North Dakota.

The bill also provides a rebuilders loan program to help North Dakotans rebuild their flood-damaged home or buy a new home. Residents who incurred flood damage in Barnes, Benson, Burleigh, McHenry, Morton, Ramsey, Renville, Richland and Ward counties would be eligible.

Lawmakers also approved $30 million in flood-impacted political subdivision infrastructure development grants.

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Earlier in the week, lawmakers approved a new redistricting map. They also passed three items related to the Environmental Protection Agency to defend hydraulic fracturing in the state and the state's plan for addressing regional haze.

Democrats tried and failed to add additional money into the disaster relief bill and to revise a law so locked-out American Crystal Sugar workers would be eligible for unemployment benefits.

Most House Democrats joined with several Republicans to support a bill for a state-created health insurance exchange, saying North Dakota could establish a better run and more cost effective program than the federal government will.

However, a majority of House Republicans believed voting for the bill was a show of support for federal health care reform and said there were too many unknowns surrounding the federal law.

During the week, lawmakers also took time to recognize former Senate Majority Leader Bob Stenehjem, who was killed in a car accident this summer.

The five-day special session overall was a good week for the citizens of North Dakota, Carlson said. Legislative leaders say they will further evaluate the needs and effectiveness of the programs approved this week to see what further investments are necessary when they meet in 2013.

Finneman is multimedia reporter at the North Dakota state Capitol for Forum Communications, which owns the Herald.

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