Greetings from Bismarck. This past week was the fourteenth full week of the legislative session. Floor sessions have been short, as conference committees became very active and will dominate legislative activity during the upcoming week. Little progress was made this past week in reducing the estimated general fund balance deficit which now stands at ($838,451,137). With time running short, there will be great pressure to reduce the deficit, as North Dakota requires the legislature to balance the budget.
Progress was made on several controversial bills this past week. This week both Houses voted to override Governor Burgum’s veto on SB2055, a bill originally intended to clarify legislative authority on an interim committee called the Budget Section. The Budget Section is a 42-member mini- legislature which meets during the interim to approve or reject spending issues. The bill was introduced after a Supreme Court ruling which disallowed four vetoes from the 2017 session. The bill will now become law without the Governor’s signature. SB2344, a bill clarifying the use of “pore space” and compensation for landowners, has been in a conference committee. On Friday the conference committee approved amendments which further clarify surface owners’ protections and to provide trespass rights to surface owners where off unit brine is disposed in a disposal well. The amendments also remove all reference to the temporary storage of natural gas. This bill has been highly contentious, and now must pass both Houses. Another highly contentious issue has been SB2315, a bill relating to criminal trespass and hunting on private land. More than 20 hours of hearings have been devoted to this bill, probably making it the most controversial bill of the session. In House passage this week, the bill was divided into two sections, with one passing and the other failing. Stripped from the bill is a section creating a statewide data base to identify land open, closed, or permission required for hunting. As is it also closes all land with the only “open” being for hunting. Landowners would still need to post their land to stop hunters which is one of the things landowners detest the most. The bill will go to a conference committee, and its future is uncertain.
The House passed SB2020, the budget bill for the State Water Commission, this week. The House had about $123 million more in funding available due to the revised budget forecast and a correction in the oil tax revenue. At passage WAWSA was the only water project that was funded at 100% of its initial request. The bill will be assigned to a conference committee. Fargo legislators prefer a significant increase in funding for Fargo flood protection or intent language to the same effect. The remainder of the bill is probably not controversial. Two previously reported water bills have now passed both Houses. SB2139 will allow the State Water Commission to cost share with local water boards in clearing and snagging operations in local waterways. That provision was stripped in 2017. Also passed is SB2293, which creates a funding mechanism to support the Aquatic Nuisance Species program which includes the Zebra mussel. The funding will be made available as the result of a $15 fee on boat license renewals.
HB 1530, a bill to eliminate personal and corporate income tax and to use up to 50% of the earnings from the Legacy Fund was previously killed in the Senate. This past week, as expected, it was added as an amendment to the budget bill for the Tax Commissioners Office. It was adopted, and the amended bill was passed in the House. It will now return to the Senate, where passage is uncertain. A bill of high importance, SB2265, will also go to conference with the Senate. The bill improves the formula used to determine state aid to school districts and will be helpful in school districts experiencing growing enrollments. SB 2265 would change providing “on time” funding which more accurately reflects current enrollment however it only provides funding for 50% of the increase in the second year of the biennium and 10% each year thereafter. It is a ridiculous manner to fix a problem that should have been fixed years ago. This bill will also be sent to a conference committee.
Legislative leadership has indicated a strong interest in saving 5 legislative days from the allocated 80 days, perhaps anticipating a need to return for a special session to consider any gubernatorial vetoes. That goal would put adjournment at some time during the week of April 22.
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