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'Toughest session' sees major legislation for North Dakota

'Toughest session' sees major legislation for North Dakota

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North Dakota lawmakers closed out the 2021 Legislature early Friday after several hours of final bill discussions interspersed with piano singalongs, card games and the chore of packing up to leave Bismarck.

The Senate adjourned at 12:26 a.m. Friday, about 10 minutes after the House, on the Legislature’s 76th official day of a maximum 80, concluding a legislative session that looked different amid the coronavirus pandemic.

For the first time, the public had remote access to all proceedings of the Legislature, from committee meetings to floor sessions, including livestreams and remote testimony. Face masks and limited seating also were fixtures of the session. 

House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, said 2021 was "probably the toughest session that I've ever been a part of" due to the pandemic.

"As much challenges that there have been, I think we're going to come out with a really good product for the state of North Dakota," he said.

Gov. Doug Burgum said "in spite of all the challenges to overcome associated with the pandemic and with (federal) stimulus dollars, there was a lot of new things that were happening, but there was some really monumental, significant legislation that has passed."

"There were just big things that moved forward and there was a lot of noise, but we've got to make sure that the signal of all the positive things really gets through, and so the Legislature should feel really good about the really significant things they accomplished," said the governor, who has 15 days to act on remaining bills.

Record budget

The Republican-controlled Legislature passed a record $16.93 billion two-year budget that includes federal funds and a $4.99 billion general fund.

Lawmakers passed 507 bills, adopted 33 resolutions, and also approved raises for state employees and elected officials of 1.5% and 2% in the two years of the 2021-23 budget cycle.

Sen. Nicole Poolman, R-Bismarck, said lawmakers were "very money-focused," given myriad federal funds coming in. 

"We have tried to allocate those in ways that will help those who have struggled during the pandemic and to keep the economy on track," she said.

Infrastructure bonding

Lawmakers passed a $680 million bonding bill for infrastructure projects, including $510 million for Fargo- and Minot-area flood control projects and $70 million for highway projects. The bill uses earnings from the state’s Legacy Fund oil tax savings for repaying the borrowed money within 20 years.

Sen. Erin Oban, D-Bismarck, said major infrastructure needs were "the message I heard loud and clear from economic development to our rural communities, that we had so many infrastructure needs that we needed to take care of."

"The fact that we took that step with bonding is a big deal. It's a really big deal," Oban said.

Legacy Fund

Burgum signed a bill directing the State Investment Board to invest up to 20% of North Dakota’s oil tax savings in the state, putting half in equities, or investing in companies in the state, and the other half in infrastructure loans to local governments and other development projects through the state-owned Bank of North Dakota.

Lawmakers also passed a so-called "streams bill" that sets a calculation for directing portions of Legacy Fund earnings, which have eclipsed $761 million in the two-year budget cycle ending June 30, to the bond repayments, public employee retirement fund and state highway fund. Earnings in excess of those distributions could go to other uses, such as university research. The bill would take effect in 2023.

"The idea behind calling it 'streams' is to make sure the people of North Dakota know the Legislature is extremely flexible when it comes to how those dollars will be allocated in the future," said Rep. Mike Lefor, R-Dickinson, who brought the bill. 

An interim committee of state lawmakers also will continue studying how to best use earnings of the Legacy Fund, with any findings and recommendations to go to the 2023 Legislature.

Rep. Mike Nathe, R-Bismarck, who brought the investment bill, counts the work as part of the session's "numerous landmark legislation."

"We're off to a good start and excited to see how it all plays out," he said.

Expulsion

The House of Representatives voted 69-25 to expel Rep. Luke Simons, R-Dickinson -- believed to be the first expulsion of a legislator in state history. Simons was expelled for workplace and sexual harassment against legislative employees and interns and fellow representatives, documented over years. He denied any wrongdoing and said he was denied due process.

Elections

The Legislature considered more than 40 voting-related bills in the wake of the 2020 election, a trend nationwide. Among those that passed was a sweeping package of changes to election administration, including language updates and provisions for matching absentee ballot application signatures, helping people with disabilities vote and enabling technology additions, such as QR codes for smartphones.

The bill also limits voters to 30 minutes to mark and cast their ballot, to speed election work. Officials say that would apply only to end-of-night voters, who could still cast their ballot to be counted later, and has no penalty.

Redistricting

The Legislature approved a bill outlining the process for redrawing legislative districts. Redistricting is done every 10 years using census data. A redistricting committee will meet several times this summer and fall before the Legislature convenes later this year to finish the task. North Dakota has 47 legislative districts, each with a senator and two representatives.

Mask mandate ban

The Legislature overrode the governor’s veto on a bill banning state-issued mask mandates. The legislation prevents state-elected officials and the appointed state health officer from requiring face coverings. Cities, counties, school districts and businesses can still require masks.

‘Vaccine passport’ ban

The Legislature approved a limited ban on so-called “vaccine passports,” which show proof of vaccinations. State and local governments would be barred from requiring the documents and mandating that businesses do so. Higher education institutions are exempt. So is the state’s school immunization law.

Businesses except for health care and long-term care facilities also would be banned from requiring vaccination documentation from patrons or customers. The ban applies only outside of public health emergencies and disasters and for vaccines given emergency use authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, such as the Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines.

Emergency powers

The Legislature trimmed the governor's emergency powers a year into the coronavirus pandemic, a disruptive time during which Burgum issued dozens of executive orders, some of which vexed lawmakers.

Burgum signed a bill into law that more closely involves the Legislature in public health emergencies and disasters and limits the governor's power to issue executive orders. The law also enables remote sessions of the Legislature during a disaster or emergency.

Transgender sports

Burgum vetoed a bill restricting transgender girls in K-12 sports, legislation which supporters said ensured fairness in girls sports. Opponents said the bill would discriminate against transgender youth and risk inviting litigation and repelling sports tourism.

Burgum cited a level playing field already in North Dakota for girls sports, as well as the transgender student board regulation by the North Dakota High School Activities Association. The House voted to override the veto, but the Senate came up short. The bill died.

Health and Human Services

North Dakota’s Health and Human Services departments will merge into one agency effective Sept. 1, 2022. Supporters say the merger will produce better collaboration over similar services.

Human Services is the state’s largest agency, with a $4.5 billion budget and more than 2,200 employees. The Health Department has more than 200 employees and a $180 million budget. The governor’s office will lead an “integration team” with representatives from each agency.

Electronic land posting

North Dakota landowners will be able to post their land electronically under a new law that makes the format and penalties equal to those of physically posting signs against trespassing. Lawful hunters and anglers are able to access fenced, unposted land for those activities only.

The law comes after years of debate over North Dakota’s land posting and trespassing laws. An interim study of electronic land posting issues begun in 2019 also will expand statewide.

Marijuana

Lawmakers left an ash heap of legislation related to recreational marijuana. The Senate smoked bills to legalize, tax and decriminalize the drug, as well as the introduction of a 2022 measure for voters to weigh in on recreational marijuana.

State representatives unsuccessfully pushed joint bills to legalize and tax recreational marijuana in an effort to head off citizen-initiated measure efforts to roll the drug into the state constitution.

Ten Commandments

Burgum signed a law allowing schools to display the Ten Commandments with other historical documents. Supporters said the law promotes good teachings; opponents said it will invite litigation, though the law extends immunity from liability to myriad school officials and employees.

Interim

Lawmakers in coming weeks will select studies and form committees for their nearly two-year interim period. They have four days remaining for legislative business. 

The state's new two-year budget cycle begins July 1. New laws take effect Aug. 1. The 2021 Legislature passed no measures for 2022 voters.

Memorable moments from floor sessions of the North Dakota Senate and House of Representatives in 2021.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-223-8482 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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