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Proposed bills for North Dakota special session include controversial topics

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Rep. Jeff Delzer, R-Underwood, discusses the American Rescue Plan spending proposal on Monday morning in front of the Legislative Management committee at the state Capitol in Bismarck.

State lawmakers on Monday laid the groundwork for their special session beginning next week, while eyeing a raft of potential flashpoint issues proposed outside of the session's main scope.

Many of those bills would ban or restrict vaccination requirements and so-called critical race theory and address election integrity. They await an introduction decision process. Key lawmakers expect at least some of them to advance.

Gov. Doug Burgum on Friday called a special session to begin Nov. 8 for the Republican-controlled Legislature to reapportion its districts and to divvy up North Dakota's $1 billion of federal American Rescue Plan Act aid. The Legislative Management panel on Monday advanced bills for both topics, which will each go through a committee hearing process.

The special session gives the Legislature all the time it needs for its business, not subject to the state constitution's 80-day limit. Otherwise, the Legislature would have just four days remaining from its 76-day regular session, which adjourned in April.

House and Senate budget writers worked throughout October to cull more than $9 billion in requests for the Rescue Plan money, emphasizing one-time projects such as infrastructure. Omitted proposals could resurface in the 2023 Legislature.

The Rescue Plan money must be allocated by the end of 2024 and be spent by the end of 2026.

The Legislature's Redistricting Committee held a rapid-fire series of meetings in September to redraw legislative districts using 2020 census data. The draft map maintains 47 districts, and includes House subdistricts for the Fort Berthold and Turtle Mountain Indian reservations. 

Lawmakers also submitted 26 other bills for the special session that deal with wide-ranging topics, notably divisive issues such as critical race theory and restrictions on vaccination requirements.

Those bills -- 21 in the House and five in the Senate -- must go through delayed bills committees to be introduced. Approved bills would then go to the Joint Technical Corrections Committee, similar to a House-Senate conference committee.

Pollert

Pollert

Chief sponsors "will give their reasons for the bill and why it's the best thing since apple pie and hot dogs," said House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, who chairs the House Delayed Bills Committee. There will be no other supporting testimony or any opposing testimony for the introduction of bills.

"It would be my plan that these things are going to be moving pretty efficiently," Pollert said. "What makes it, makes it, goes on to Joint Technical Corrections Committee, and what doesn't is done, unless there's debate on the floor, which they have that right."

A bill by Rep. Jeff Hoverson, R-Minot, would require pharmacists to dispense the anti-parasitic drug ivermectin if presented with a prescription for treating COVID-19, even if it's against their professional judgment. The federal Food and Drug Administration has not authorized or approved ivermectin as a COVID-19 treatment.

Several bills ban or restrict vaccination requirements; one is 24 pages long.

One bill by Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Fargo, bans the teaching of critical race theory, which centers on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions and that they function to maintain the dominance of white people in society, according to The Associated Press.

A bill by Senate Education Committee Chairman Donald Schaible, R-Mott, also would restrict teaching of race, gender, sexuality and equality.

Some bills relate to the major issues at hand, such as district party reorganization and the staggering of legislative terms after redistricting.

Klein

Klein

Sen. Jerry Klein, R-Fessenden, who chairs the Senate Delayed Bills Committee, said he expects vaccination and critical race theory bills to come out of the special session, citing a "political environment currently that is screaming for action as it relates to those two issues."

He wants to ensure every bill is thoroughly vetted, and to see what could wait until the 2023 Legislature.

House Majority Leader Chet Pollert discusses the delayed bills process.

After some unsuccessful iterations, the 2021 Legislature passed a law banning so-called "vaccine passports," which verify a person's immunizations. The law prohibits government entities and businesses from requiring documents for certain vaccinations.

Pollert expressed openness about "taking a look at" restricting vaccination requirements and the teaching of critical race theory.

"I will not support eight different vaccine mandate bills, whatever you want to call it. I will not support that many," he said.

The governor declined to comment on the batch of proposed bills "because we haven't seen the bills." 

"We'll just have to evaluate them when they, if they, reach our desk," Burgum said Friday.

Sen. Erin Oban, D-Bismarck, opposes advancing legislation outside the scope of redistricting and the Rescue Plan money "because that's what the special session is intended to be dealing with."

Oban

Oban

"If somebody doesn't put the hammer down, this is going to be a longer session than it needs to be," she said.

She sees the regular session as most appropriate for policy changes, and agreed with Pollert's stated preference that the special session wrap up late Friday, Nov. 12. 

Legislative Management on Monday also advanced other bills from interim committees, including ones to:

  • Temporarily amend spending approval limits of the Emergency Commission on special funds
  • Transfer Judicial Wing space to the Legislature for meeting rooms
  • Exclude the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation from the state's behavioral health bed management system
  • Phase in cybersecurity K-12 education requirements

The Legislature has met in special sessions 15 times in state history, most recently in 2016 to address a $1 billion state revenue shortfall.

Legislative Management also approved an agenda for the first day of the special session, set to begin at 8 a.m., including a joint session and committee meetings expected to last into the night. The governor also will give an address. Agendas will be set on a daily basis.

"We've been working like busy beavers to get ready for this session," said Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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