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With end of session in sight, ND lawmakers look to address major budget bills

BISMARCK — North Dakota lawmakers are nearing the end of the 2017 session, but that finale isn’t expected to come until next week after legislative leaders said Thursday, April 20, they won’t work Saturday to complete their remaining bills.

Lawmakers have been pushing to end the session before reaching their constitutional limit of 80 days. Thursday marked the 72nd legislative day.

There were 34 bills left as of Thursday afternoon, according to Legislative Council.

“People have been working hard, especially those who are in conference committees and appropriations,” said Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson. “We want to get done in efficient time, but we want to do good work too.”

Wardner said he wants to wrap up the session by Tuesday.

“We’re going to have to shake and bake,” he said.

Adjourning Tuesday would leave the Legislature five days to return to address any issues that come up, including potential federal health care changes. House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, said five days is “plenty.”

“You basically need at least three (days) to get anything done,” he said.

Still waiting for a final floor vote are a number of major budget bills, including for higher education, the Department of Human Services and the Public Employees Retirement System. The Senate has yet to take its first vote on the Office of Management and Budget funding bill.

But several bills did make progress Thursday, including major legislation creating a two-year pilot program for the state takeover of county social services costs. Senate Bill 2206 is expected to pass out of a conference committee after some final tweaks Friday.

“It’s been through a lot of changes, but I think they were necessary changes relative to the budget situation the state’s in right now,” said Sen. Brad Bekkedahl, R-Williston.

Bekkedahl acknowledged it doesn’t contain as much property tax relief as originally hoped, but he pointed to the support included in the state’s education funding.

“We still have significant property tax relief out there,” he said. “We have to get out of here with a balanced budget, and this has been part of that discussion.”

The bill suspends county authority to levy for human services and eliminates the 12 percent property tax buydown. It provides payments to counties based on a formula that uses social services caseload and expenses.

Sen. Jim Dotzenrod, D-Wyndmere, expects property tax increases due to the removal of a “hold harmless” provision that he said would have assured the same level of state support as in the past. Still, he said it’s hard to vote against the bill.

“I look at it as a half a cup is better than nothing,” Dotzenrod said.

Meanwhile, a Democratic leader expressed disappointment over the level of funding provided for behavioral health services but ultimately voted to pass House Bill 1040 out of a conference committee Thursday. The House passed it in the late afternoon.

The bill includes $350,000 among three programs: peer-to-peer support services, family-to-family support services and a children’s prevention and early intervention behavioral health services pilot project in a school system chosen by the Department of Human Services. Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford, said that falls far short of the state’s needs.

“Better than nothing seems to be the motto this session,” she said, noting that the original bill included more than $28 million in funding. “This is a very important piece of legislation for the future of North Dakota’s behavioral and mental health needs.”

But Rep. Robin Weisz, R-Hurdsfield, said the funding will help lawmakers determine which programs are working and could be expanded in the future. He said the $28 million price tag was based on a consultant’s recommendation, and that level of funding probably wouldn’t have been attained even during better budgetary times.

“Would have there been more than this? Probably,” Weisz said. “Even though we identify a problem and we know there’s a need, just throwing money at it doesn’t necessarily help you.”

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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