The 66th session of the Legislature was less partisan than in recent years with more of an effort for collaboration. When it adjourned, Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, described it as the smoothest under his leadership.
Some of the credit has to be shared with House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, under whose leadership the House seemed calmer and focused. Both Wardner and Pollert made an effort to work with the minority leaders with many of the contested bills involving debates that crossed party lines.
The Tribune Editorial Board gives the legislative performance a B+: they weren’t perfect, but they were productive. Gov. Doug Burgum, in a meeting Thursday with the Tribune Editorial Board, said the Legislature was effective. He noted it funded key priorities such as teacher pay, health care and state salaries. He said there were missed opportunities such as not funding career academies, dealing with the pension fund, tackling higher education governance and infrastructure bonding.
Legislators created a $14.7 billion budget that involves more than $4.8 billion in general fund spending. Quite a change from 2017 when spending cuts were the theme of the session.
They also gave state employees 2% and 2.5% raises in the first and second years of the 2019-21 biennium. After not receiving raises the last two years and seeing staffs reduced, the money will be appreciated.
The Tribune questions the wisdom of giving much larger raises to Treasurer Kelly Schmidt and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring. Schmidt received an 8% raise and Goehring will get 7.5% and 2.5% raises over the next two years.
We have no doubt that Goehring and Schmidt work hard, but it seems legislators are telling state employees that they don’t value their work as much as officeholders’.
Other highlights of the session include the lifting of the Sunday shopping ban. The Tribune believes this action was overdue and we doubt the changes will be drastic. It was a question of fairness and there no longer will be winners and losers when it comes to who can open before noon on Sundays. Another major action was the tribal oil tax compromise which resolves a dispute that caused uncertainty for oil operators. The agreement changes how revenue is shared for new wells on trust and fee lands, sending a greater share of tax dollars to the tribe. The oil industry expects the agreement will prompt additional investment at Fort Berthold that will increase revenues for the entire state.
One of the mostly controversial measures of the session was a bill described as clarifying rules for pore space, or the void or cavity in underground rock formations. The oil industry favored it, but it was strongly opposed by many landowners. The Tribune believes the measure was unfair to landowners and it’s unfortunate it passed. It’s likely to face lawsuits or a referral effort.
There also was a lot of debate over deciding the framework for an ethics commission created by the passage of Measure 1 in November. The measure restricts lobbyists and prohibits gifts, among other "anti-corruption" initiatives. The Tribune believes one of the flaws of the measure is that it relied on the Legislature to implement it. That opened the door for disappointment for supporters.
One of the earliest actions by the Legislature was approval of the “Operation Prairie Dog” bill. It funds local infrastructure improvements with oil tax money, providing for up to $250 million every two years to be distributed to city, county, township and airport projects, such as roads and bridges. Funding will be first available in mid-2021. The bill was easily approved in both chambers and will provide benefits statewide.
Legislators voted to place two referred constitutional measures on the 2020 ballot. One would require legislative approval of a constitutional initiative passed by voters. The Legislature would have to approve it or reject it and sent it back to voters, who could then pass it into effect. The second referred measure asks voters to increase membership of the state Board of Higher Education from eight to 15 members. The Tribune feels both measures should be rejected. We are opposed to weakening the initiative process, which we feel the measure will do. We don’t see a larger Board of Higher Education providing more efficiency or doing a better job of resolving issues involving our universities and colleges.