News from the 65th legislative session

The legislative attack on wind power intensified in the closing days of the session’s first half.

Jacobs

By MIKE JACOBS
NDNA

The legislative attack on wind power intensified in the closing days of the session’s first half.

Amendments cropped up that would have imposed a moratorium on wind energy installations in the state.

This took wind energy advocates and many senators by surprise. It came in what is known as a “hog house” amendment that removes previous language and add new language and different provisions.

Sen. Dwight Cook of Mandan said he intended the moratorium “to save coal.”

The moratorium amendment failed on a voice vote.

This left only a request for a study of wind energy by the interim Legislative Management Committee. That passed the Senate 42-4.

That leaves the matter to the House of Representatives, where Rep. Mike Brandenburg of Edgeley, a supporter of wind power, said he expects renewed efforts to reduce the expansion of wind power in the state.

The Senate bill could become a vehicle for this kind of “mischief,” he said, because it could face new amendments in the House.

The bill number is SB2314.

A companion bill, 2313, also was passed and sent to the House. This establishes a program in the state Agriculture Department to help landowners with wind energy easements.

Other wind power bills were passed by the House and face action in the Senate:

HB 1181 increases the rights of landowners granting leases for wind energy development. It passed 89-3.

HB 1378 requires lighting wind towers so that aircraft can detect them. This passed 74-17.

• Budget forecast looms big for legislators

The North Dakota Legislature met its Crossover deadline last week and took a break.

Lawmakers were to be back at work Wednesday, day 37 of the current session. That means legislators have 44 days to finish up by the constitutional deadline of 80 days.

Leaders in both parties and both houses suggested last week that the session will end in mid-April, leaving time to reconvene if issues arise.

That means adjournment could come before Easter.

Attention this week will turn to budget forecasts. This is a three-step program directed by the Office of Management and Budget.

The first step takes place Friday, March 3, when OMB and the state Tax Department present reports of revenue collections and predictions about economic activity. Industry leaders will weigh in with their own forecasts of prospects for oil production, farm commodities, retail sales and the like. These go to Moody’s Analytics, which feeds the information into its models, producing a revenue forecast for the state. That will be presented to the Appropriations committees of the Legislature March 9.

The committees will adopt numbers based on the analysts’ work. These will likely reflect the analysts’ numbers, but lawmakers are free to make changes – and did in the last forecast round.

The legislative models are critically important; they will determine spending levels across state governments.

There’s little optimism about the numbers.

Sales tax collections for December and January were below projections, Budget Director Pam Sharp said.

Budget writing isn’t the only challenge for legislators, of course. A number of key issues remained unresolved at Crossover, which is often regarded as “half time” at the Legislature.

Among these are funding for human service programs, including nursing homes, a state takeover of welfare costs previously born by counties, and funding for higher education.

There’s been particular emphasis on behavior health issues, especially opioid addiction, a priority Gov. Doug Burgum mentioned in his state-of-the-state addresses and has pursued with public meetings and agency consultations.

Lawmakers have determined to retain per pupil payments at existing levels for public elementary and high schools.

So far appropriations bills in both houses retain full insurance coverage for state employees, but no raises. Burgum had suggested that employees pay 5 percent of premiums, and that idea could re-emerge if budget projects are especially bleak.

The House passed a bill that makes the board of the Public Employee Retirement System advisory and the director of the agency a gubernatorial appointee. It also changes the timing and conditions of employee benefit contracts.

This is the issue that derailed the 2015 session and forced lawmakers to return to Bismarck to reach a compromise between House and Senate approaches.

The future of wind power in the state also remains uncertain.

These and other issues likely will be wrapped up in conference committees near the end of the session.

House Democratic and Republican leaders suggested separately last week that hockey prepares a better analogy for the legislative session than any game that’s played in halves.

Hockey has three periods. In the legislative context the first period is the time before Crossover; the second period is the time between Crossover and the closing days of the session, and the third period the time during which conference committees meet to iron out differences between the House and Senate.

• Senate changes initiated measures

In the space of an hour last week, the state Senate amended two initiated measures.

This might be unprecedented.

Changing measures approved by voters is difficult. The North Dakota constitution requires a two-thirds vote of legislators to agree to changes within seven years of the measure’s adoption by voters.  After seven years, a majority is sufficient.

First up was a measure passed in 2016 by a margin of nearly 2-to-1.  It legalized medical marijuana.

The other measure was passed in 2008. It established a tobacco prevention program.

So the marijuana measure was the trickier.

Legislative leaders worked hard to gain the two-thirds vote needed. Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem appeared at a Republican Senate caucus to argue that the measure was poorly worded and potentially dangerous. Republican leaders took the unusual step of requiring GOP senators to declare their intentions ahead of the vote.

In the end, the bill amending the initiated measure passed comfortably, 40-6.

It will be considered by the House, where amendments are expected. A two-thirds vote will be required there, too.

Within minutes of approving changes in the medical marijuana measure, senators took up the tobacco prevention and control program. Changes here required only a simple majority, since the measure had been in effect for seven years.

This, too, passed easily, 36 votes to 10.

The tobacco program is widely known as “Breathe ND,” which sponsored a program of ads dramatizing the health effects of tobacco and provided grants to local public health units and others. The bill ended the center and transferred responsibility for tobacco control and prevention to the State Health Department.

Unlike the vote on the marijuana measure, this became a partisan issue. All nine Senate Democrats voted against the changes. The only Republican no voter was Sen. Tom Campbell of Grafton.

Like the medical marijuana measure, this one will go to the House, where a simple majority vote will eliminate the agency.

Earlier in the session the Senate voted to overturn another initiated measure, the state’s 69-year ban on parking meters. That measure, too, will now go to the House.

(Reach Mike Jacobs at mjacobs@polarcomm.com)

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