NDU LEGISLATIVE UPDATE -- April 21, 2017

By Tom Gerhardt, Director of Public Affairs

I ran a marathon in 2011, and I can tell you there are some similarities between running over 26 miles and covering a legislative session. (Last year, I watched the entire series of “Breaking Bad” in a marathon of about four days, while I recuperated from surgery. So, yeah. Kind of the same thing. – editor’s note)

Somewhere around mile 22 finishing began to seem unlikely -- even when I made the final turn and could see the end in sight. The last 50 yards seemed like an eternity.

The 65th Legislative Assembly has made the final turn. The finish line is in site, but these last few days in some ways feel endless.

Thursday afternoon on the Senate floor, Majority Leader Rich Wardner announced lawmakers will not work the weekend, but will return Monday with the goal of finishing sometime Tuesday. Later that day on the House floor, Majority Leader Al Carlson agreed Tuesday was the goal, but said you never know.

Keep on ice fish truckin'. - editor's meme

Tuesday may be a mirage. It would be day 75 of the 80 days allowed. Legislators want to bank several days in case they need to come back to work on issues associated with the Affordable Care Act. However, there are several major issues left to be resolved, including the higher education budget and Public Employee Retirement System (PERS)-related bills. If I were you, I wouldn’t place any bets.

(If you were taking bets, you should have bet on the Harlem Globetrotters shooting a basket from the top of the Capitol. Because they totally did that. - editor's note)

A quick note to higher ed followers, looking for budget specifics: I’m told by those in conference committee that everything is fluid and final numbers won’t be known until the end. Right now, what I hear is a 20 percent (on average) across the board cut for higher ed, but I know that number varies by institution.

SB 2037 

Let’s start with some good news. After a rollercoaster ride through the session, a significant teacher loan forgiveness bill passed the House floor Friday (67-25) and the Senate floor Thursday (46-0).  The Conference Committee did terrific work to merge SB 2243 into SB 2037 and come out with a product that will incentivize new teachers to work in rural school districts, fill critical need positions in both rural and non-rural districts and help to make sure our students have a teacher in their classroom.

(That deserves a “YUSS.” – editor’s meme)

The program will help erase student loan debt for new teachers. In fact, an educator filling a critical need area in a remote school district for a maximum of four years could earn $24,000 of loan forgiveness.

On the other end of the spectrum, filling a critical need position in a non-rural school district over the same four-year period could equate to a maximum of $12,000 in loan forgiveness.

It’s not clear when the program will be in place, but the effort to get the bill passed came with bipartisan support and with the backing of the Superintendent of the Department of Public Instruction, as well as education stakeholders like us at North Dakota United.

HB 1324 & HB 1013 

These two bills are the K-12 policy bill (HB 1324) and the budget bill (HB 1310) for elementary and secondary schools in North Dakota. SB 1324 passed the Senate this week, 41-6, and SB 1013 passed the Senate this week, 47-0. Both were sent to Governor Burgum on Thursday for his signature.

I’m told it’s not often that these K-12 bills ($2.3 billion budget) are taken care of this early, and thanks to Measure 2,  lawmakers were able to hold K-12 harmless during the upcoming biennium. Speaking of Measure 2 (which NDU led the effort to pass – editor’s note), Sen. Ray Holmberg said on the Senate floor $112 million more could have been accessed thanks to its passing, but now will be there for next session.

SB 2139 

This bill attempted, in various forms, to allow elected officials in the state to carry concealed in public building, schools, churches and sporting events. It was a bit like a rollercoaster passing out of Conference Committee three times before it was finally killed on the Senate floor Thursday, 43-3, at the urging of Sen. Kelly Armstrong.

2139 was one of those bills that started as one thing and was amended late in the session into something completely different.

Thanks to those of you who responded to our Action Alert and for telling our legislators this was a poorly written, ambiguous and rushed bill that deserved to be defeated.

Conference Committee on SB 2139.

HB 1023

The House offered a major amendment to this bill Friday morning in committee.

First, gone is Rep. Al Carlson’s 112-page amendment that would have changed the governance of PERS and created a new state agency called the PERS Office.

The changes offered by the House do not change the PERS Board.

Instead, the amendment sets up what would be called a Public Employee Health Care Coverage Committee. The committee would do exactly as its title suggests — study health-care coverage. The PEHCC would make recommendations through Legislative Management to the PERS Board, which would retain the final ability to make decisions and execute them.

The committee would be made up of 11 legislators. Five would come from the Senate, with three appointed by the Majority Leader and two by the Minority Leader. Six would come from the House, with four appointed by the Majority Leader and two by the Minority Leader. The governor would appoint four non-voting members.

The amendment also states a new self-insurance plan shall be implemented July 1 of 2019.

I’ve talked a lot about our current plan versus a self-insured plan in previous updates. These amendments could be major sticking points as the session winds down. The House and Senate have very different ideas when it comes to these issues. The Conference Committee on HB 1023 will meet again Monday morning.

NDU Vice President for Education Karen Christensen, top right, was in attendance for the signing ceremony of HB 1098. This bill expands elementary licensure from grades 1-6 to grades 1-8, and modifies the grade range for secondary licensure to include grades 5-12, as opposed to grades 7-12.

SB 2003 

This is the University System budget for all 11 institutions statewide.

Conference committee meetings between the House and the Senate have been contentious.

This morning (Friday, April 21), the two sides formalized the agreement on the NDSU Nursing School in Bismarck.

You may have also read about a land swap in Fargo that had some up in arms.

In committee today, Rep. Roscoe Streyle said NDSU President Dean Brescani doesn’t want the land swap. A road will be built through the piece of land owned by NDSU, and Streyle said today that NDSU will never be able to come back to legislators and ask for money to pay for special assessments. Streyle says NDSU is on its own when it comes to paying that bill.

And to repeat what I said earlier, final budget numbers for this bill remain fluid. Last week, I reported Rep. Mark Sanford said on the House floor that the number of higher ed cuts is at 436 and counting. He said that included 90 people losing their jobs, a few buyouts and retirements, paired predominantly with positions that will simply go unfilled.

The conference committee on SB 2003 will go back to work Monday morning at the Capitol.

I’m off to Grand Forks today with many of my NDU co-workers for the Regional Delegate Assembly and Bargaining Conference. Please stop me to say hello. I hope to see you there!

(He looks like this, if you haven't seen him yet. Just so you don't accidentally say hi to the wrong person. - editor's note)

If not, we will be holding the same conference in Bismarck next weekend. NDU President Nick Archuleta and I will be at both to answer any questions you may have and to provide updates on the legislative session.

Although the days are winding down on the session, we’ve still got a lot of important work to do.

United, we can make a difference!