By Tom Gerhardt, NDU Director of Public Affairs

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to Round Three of this 16-round main event also known as the 65th  Legislative Assembly in North Dakota. The weather warmed up this week, and so did some of the news from the Capitol.

The biggest headline of the week for our members came from Gov. Doug Burgum’s budget recommendation calling for public employees to contribute 5 percent to their health insurance premiums and to prepare for no raises during the upcoming biennium (Gov. Jack Dalrymple included 1 percent raises for the second year, and called for maintaining premium-free coverage. - editor's note). Burgum’s budget also calls for higher education to receive an additional $31 million cut and would eliminate a 1 percent increase in the per-pupil payment for K-12 schools compared to recommendations proposed by Governor Dalrymple. (I miss Jack. - editor's note). North Dakota United President Nick Archuleta responded quickly on all fronts, including interviews with multiple media outlets. In an interview with KFYR-TV in Bismarck, President Archuleta said, “We don't look at these as public employee jobs, these are people. And these are people that contribute to our communities, they live among us, they worship where we worship they send their kids to our schools. Behind every job cut there is a person and a family and an impact, and we want to tread that line very, very carefully."

In the Fargo Forum, Archuleta added that fully paid health insurance helps to recruit and retain public employees. “The state of North Dakota, the people who live here, have come to expect great public service. I’m afraid that if all we are going to do is cut, cut, cut we’re not going to be able to maintain that level that the people of North Dakota have come to expect," he said.

Achuleta also interviewed on the Joel Heitkamp Show on KFGO, with Dave Thompson on Prairie Public Radio and provided a statement to KX News in Bismarck, Minot, Williston and Dickinson.

There is some promising news to report on the health insurance front, though. 

(Careful, though. We've been told to look out for possible grizzlies. - editor's note)

NDU lobbying staff have held meetings with leaders and members from both parties, and there is clearly not a consensus on lawmakers balancing the budget on the backs of public employees. Governor Burgum’s budget shows a 5 percent contribution by state employees would make up $11 million. That's red meat to a Legislature trying to cut spending any way they can, but so far, no bill has been introduced to include the 5 percent contribution. So we need to continue to contact our state lawmakers to let them know how much value there is in a fully paid health insurance premium. In fact, click here to find out how to unify your voice with thousands of others and become an NDU Activist. Not only can you help defeat bad legislation, you can also give voice to bills that strengthen our education system and government institutions in North Dakota.

Besides working the halls, this week NDU lobbyists attended a number of House and Senate committee hearings. Monday morning, President Archuleta testified in favor of SB 2186 relating to an innovative pilot program for improving student education allowing more flexibility for teaching and learning.

(Like us on Facebook to see posts like the one above, as they happen! - editor's note)

We followed other Senate bills, including SB 2180, which would refuse federal education funding tied to federal mandates. There were many questions about this bill, including how districts would up the funding (local taxpayers). Sen. David Rust pointed out that school districts already have the option of refusing federal funding but must continue to comply with mandates.

SB 2194 related to the provision and payment of early childhood education programs. That received a DNP recommendation from the Education Committee.

On the House side, several bills commanded our attention. HB 1303 would prohibit state agencies from filling vacant employee positions until the end of April. Several groups, including NDU, spoke in opposition to it. There doesn’t seem to be a large appetite for this bill among lawmakers. If it passes, it appears it will be amended. But as they say, anything can happen! (Including grizzlies. - editor's note)

The same appears to be true of HB 1168, which drew the ire of our members. The bill would restrict compensation and travel reimbursement for public employees for attendance at legislative meetings. President Archuleta and many others rose to testify in opposition to the bill.

HB 1276 relates to limitations on property tax increases by districts without voter approval. Support came from West Fargo and Fargo representatives, but included an hour and a half of opposition from multiple agencies, associations and schools.

HB 1098, relating to middle school teacher qualifications, passed the House by a 85-6 vote.

The North Dakota University System (NDUS) and state institutions of higher learning budgets were introduced in Senate Appropriations. A sub-committee was formed (Sen. Holmberg, Sen. Krebsbach & Sen. Robinson) to work on these budgets.

There are multiple bills we will keep an eye on next week but two jump off the page. HB 1382 was introduced by Rep. Rick C. Becker and is an education savings account bill (Voucher bill! - editor's note). If passed, this bill would funnel public tax dollars to non-public schools. That bill will be introduced Tuesday at 10 a.m. before the House Education Committee. President Archuleta will testify against this bill.

Then come the gun bills, and there are more than a handful of them, including HB 1310, which will be introduced Friday at 9 a.m. in front of the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The bill would allow guns in schools. The bill description reads, “relating to an exceptionto the prohibition against possessing a firearm at a public gathering.” There are plenty of other bills dealing with guns. Let's list them all off in rapid fire (Pun intended, I'm sure. - editor's note)HB 1190, HB 1169, HB 1233, HB 1273, HB 1278 (guns in government buildings), HB 1279, HB 1391, and HB 1395.

Whew. That was a lot of links.

Here's another one: Join us for our next “This Week in the N.D. Legislature" chat on Facebook Live! Every Monday at 4:30 p.m. CST during session, I'll be talking to NDU President Nick Archuleta about what is happening at the Capitol, and we're going to stream that conversation for you to view on social media. Tune in as it happens, and ask us questions in the comments. We want all of our members to know what is going on at the Capitol as it relates to your personal and professional lives, and the invaluable work you do for every person in the state!

United together, we can make a difference!