BISMARCK – After being criticized for yanking funding from the bill a week ago, House lawmakers voted Monday to restore $250,000 to legislation designed to shorten wait times for rape victims who need sexual assault examinations.

Lawmakers also gave final approval to a bill with $1.25 million in grant funding for organizations that provide treatment and shelter services for human trafficking victims.

“These victims are the definition of exploited, and we need to get them services,” said Sen. Kelly Armstrong, R-Dickinson.

Senate Bill 2284 originally contained a $500,000 appropriation to train more nurses to do sexual assault exams, to start new sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) programs and to support existing ones.  

The Senate cut the appropriation to $200,000 before unanimously passing the bill in February, and the House Appropriations Committee stripped the money altogether.

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The House backed away from its amendment in conference committee, and conferees restored $250,000 for the 2015-17 biennium.

Renee Stromme, executive director of the North Dakota Women’s Network, said hundreds of people contacted legislators through a petition launched after the House removed the funding, urging them to restore it.

“There really is a lot of passion from people seeing this as an important piece of legislation,” she said.

The Senate voted Friday to adopt the conference committee’s report and unanimously approve the bill, and the House followed suit Monday. The bill now goes to Gov. Jack Dalrymple for his signature.

Stromme said the funding is key to expanding the number of sexual assault nurses and SANE programs.

“It’ll get a lot of training out there, and hopefully we can get a number of nurse programs sent up in the highest-impact communities that are really asking for them,” she said.

North Dakota has about 55 to 60 sexual assault nurses but needs at least 40 to 50 more to meet the demand of the state’s growing population, according to previous testimony from the head of the nonprofit Central Dakota Forensic Nurse Examiners in Bismarck, which trains sexual assault nurses. Sen. Carolyn Nelson, D-Fargo, who introduced the bill, has said a young woman in western North Dakota spent almost 24 hours in the clothes in which she was raped before she could receive an exam.

“There are women who are transported from place to place until they find somebody who can perform the exam. That takes a very resilient person,” Stromme said.

Armstrong, an attorney, said the exams also are important to the prosecution of human traffickers because with admissible DNA evidence, “your conviction rate goes up exponentially.” It also increases the chances of a plea agreement, which spares the victim from having to testify in open court, he said.

Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks, said it’s “critically important” to provide counseling and other assistance to human trafficking victims, who are potential witnesses against pimps and traffickers.

“If we want to put these people out of business, you’d better believe we need to stand by the victims,” he said.

The amended bill prohibits using the grant funds for salaries for nurses. It also requires the attorney general to report to the 2017 Legislature on the number of nurses trained, the location and number of nurses providing SANE services and the collaborative efforts to assist sexual assault victims.

The original bill would have appropriated money from the general fund, but the final version takes it from a pool of funds earmarked for grants to law enforcement agencies within the state’s Oil and Gas Impact Grant Fund, which would receive nearly $140 million in a separate bill awaiting approval.

Schneider said while he’s happy the funding was approved, “It is disappointing that it’s coming from other law enforcement priorities.

“Given the small amounts here, I don’t think it’s necessary to pit one against the other,” he said.

Some sponsors of the bipartisan bill had concerns that the different funding source might limit the areas eligible for the grants, but Rep. Robert Skarphol, R-Tioga, said that’s not the case.

“I want to make it explicitly clear that there is no intent that this money only be spent in the oil counties of North Dakota. This money is for the entire state,” he said.

Money from the impact grant fund also was used to restore $750,000 to the human trafficking victim assistance bill, SB2199, after the House Appropriations Committee cut the original bill’s $1 million appropriation to $500,000.

Armstrong said both issues are related to law enforcement, and lawmakers still could add money to the attorney general’s budget.

The Senate voted unanimously Monday to concur with House amendments to SB2199, which now goes to the governor.