BISMARCK — House and Senate leaders in North Dakota are preparing to consider hundreds of bills passed by their counterparts across the hall after a six-day, mid-session break that ends Wednesday, Feb. 27.
The Republican-controlled Legislature adjourned for the crossover break on Wednesday after slogging through a final round of major initiatives. Proposals that have passed their chamber of origin will now face a new test as lawmakers grind through the second half of the biennial session.
Legislative leaders expect to fine tune agency budgets after receiving updated revenue projections in March. Republican majority leaders said they expected a somewhat rosier revenue picture in the latter half of the session.
“I think it’s going to come in a little above where we’re at, but it’s not going to come in so high that it’s going to take care of all our problems,” said Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson.
The House passed 351 of the 545 bills introduced in that chamber, while the Senate approved 269 of the 359 unveiled there, according to figures provided Thursday by Legislative Council Director John Bjornson.
The Senate, which adjourned hours before the House, got a head start on some House bills before the crossover break, highlighting what Wardner said has been a smooth session so far. The Legislature entered crossover break on the 33rd day of a session that’s limited to 80 days, and both majority leaders hope to wrap up several days ahead of that cap.
But several major proposals likely to generate plenty of debate still loom on the horizon.
Both chambers have passed separate bills implementing the state’s new voter-approved constitutional ethics rules in recent days, but legislative leaders expect more work ahead before reaching a final product.
House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, said he expects House bills on income taxes, particularly one using Legacy Fund earnings to reduce individual and corporate rates, to be “scrutinized very heavily” in the Senate. Wardner said there’s not a lot of appetite in his chamber for that proposal, which was previously deemed poor policy by Republican Gov. Doug Burgum.
But Wardner predicted abortion bills passed by the House will be successful in the Senate. One would require physicians to inform women that it’s possible to reverse a drug-induced abortion and another would outlaw a procedure that’s commonly performed in the second trimester of pregnancy. The head of the state’s sole abortion clinic has opposed both bills.
The House has also sent the Senate proposed changes to the state’s medical marijuana law, a bill repealing the ban on Sunday morning shopping and an infrastructure funding bill aimed at areas outside the oil patch. The Senate has approved a tribal oil tax compromise.
Pollert said a Senate-approved water project funding package will be a contentious issue when it reaches the House. That budget bill includes increased funding for the Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion, but not to the level the project’s planners had hoped.
“Until we see that forecast … I’m not ready to comment,” Pollert said when asked about proper funding for the diversion.
House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, raised concerns over a resolution that passed the Senate in a surprise vote Monday seeking to give lawmakers input on constitutional amendments initiated by voters. Boschee said the change would serve as a “check on the people,” but Pollert said it’s an idea worthy of discussion.
The resolution seeks to amend the constitution and would therefore need approval from voters in the 2020 election.
The first weeks of the session have also seen lawmakers take a lukewarm stance on some of Burgum’s major proposals. They defeated a bill outlining two-board structure for the state’s higher education system, voted to study a prison system reshuffling and haven’t budgeted funds for the proposed Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library.
But Pollert said lawmakers are “still talking” about the library proposal, adding that they’ve been supportive of the governor’s ideas on funding unmanned aircraft programs.
In an interview Thursday, Burgum said there's been "good progress" made in the first weeks of the session alongside a robust debate on using the voter-approved Legacy Fund. As part of his $14.3 billion budget proposal unveiled in December, Burgum proposed tapping $300 million in Legacy Fund earnings for the presidential library, drone infrastructure and other projects.
"We feel good about where we are," he said. "We think there's still an opportunity for some really smart, transformative investments to be made by the Legislature as they head into this."