After four months, North Dakota’s legislative session is over. Here's a rundown of the biggest news.
State lawmakers passed bills to cut taxes, to restrict transgender residents and to tackle labor shortages. Their next regular session won't begin until January 2025.
BISMARCK — North Dakota lawmakers have capped off a legislative session highlighted by a willingness to spend money, to cut taxes and to wage culture wars.
The Republican-led Legislature passed a record $19.6 billion two-year budget that includes federal money and a $6.1 billion general fund, which is the state’s main operating fund. The budget comes amid recent inflation.
Gov. Doug Burgum in December proposed an $18.4 billion budget with a $5.86 billion general fund. The 2021-23 budget was $17.8 billion with a $5 billion general fund, including federal coronavirus aid.
Burgum had signed 538 bills and vetoed seven by the end of the session. The Legislature sustained five vetoes and overrode two. Burgum has until May 19 to act on 45 remaining bills.
Should he veto any additional bills, the Legislative Management could call to reconvene the Legislature to vote on overriding the governor.
Most new laws take effect Aug. 1.
Socially conservative legislators made their presence felt in Bismarck and spurred on proposals that tackled controversial issues, said Mark Jendrysik, a political science professor at the University of North Dakota.
“I think it was very interesting how much of the ‘culture war’ legislation debated or passed by the Legislature seemed to come (from) other states,” Jendrysik said. “I think the session also reflected the tensions between the Republican supermajority in the Legislature and the governor.”
Burgum signed a $515 million tax cuts package. The legislation will effectively eliminate state income tax for lower earners and reduce tax rates for higher brackets.
Starting in 2024, homeowners will be eligible for $500-a-year property tax credits. The package also expanded eligibility for a property tax credit that applies to older homeowners.
Burgum signed a bill revising the state’s near total ban on abortion in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling, which overturned the constitutional right to an abortion.
The law is bound to become part of an ongoing lawsuit over the state's ban.
Under the initial abortion ban, doctors could be charged with a Class C felony for performing an abortion during medical emergencies and in cases of rape or incest, but they could argue in court that the affirmative defenses for rape, incest and protection of the life of a mother outlined in the law protect them from criminal liability.
The revised law changes the ban's affirmative defenses into exceptions, which supporters say would take the legal burden off medical providers.
The law also allows for abortions in cases of rape and incest, but only before six weeks gestation.
The law allows for treatment of ectopic pregnancies, a dangerous, nonviable scenario in which a fertilized egg implants outside the uterus.
Lawmakers also passed roughly a dozen bills aligned with a call from the North Dakota Catholic Conference for “responding with love.” This included legislation that exempts children’s diapers from sales taxes, creates an adoption tax credit and expands assistance for pregnant women, among other proposals.
The governor and lawmakers made addressing North Dakota’s workforce woes a top priority. Burgum has said the state has roughly 35,000 open jobs.
Burgum and the Legislature approved a $65.6 million package aimed at making child care more affordable and available to parents of young children. Most of the bill’s funding will subsidize the service for parents with lower incomes and incentivize child care businesses to take on more infants and toddlers.
Supporters said boosting the child care sector would allow more stay-at-home parents to reenter the workforce.
Burgum also signed a bill creating a state immigration office to help companies recruit and retain foreign workers.
Burgum signed a bill to loosen North Dakota’s anti-corporate farming law to boost animal agriculture, marking a rare departure from the state’s guarded family farming heritage.
The law aims to attract outside capital to livestock operations, with restrictions and requirements on shareholders, such as how much land an authorized livestock farm corporation can own, and requiring a majority of shareholders be farmers or ranchers.
Burgum and lawmakers have lamented the decline of North Dakota’s animal agriculture and comparisons to neighboring states’ more robust livestock industries.
The Legislature also legalized direct-to-consumer sales of raw milk over the objections of public health officials.
Republican lawmakers showed an elevated interest in gender identity issues, a trend nationwide in conservative statehouses.
Burgum signed legislation to criminalize gender-affirming care for transgender minors and to restrict transgender females’ participation in sports. Another bill barred transgender people from using bathrooms that match their gender identity in certain public facilities.
The Legislature passed other bills to restrict sex amendments on birth records and how schools treat transgender students’ pronouns.
Burgum has yet to act on a proposal approved by lawmakers that would prohibit transgender K-12 students from using bathrooms that align with their gender identity. The governor has until May 19 to act on the bill.
LGBTQ advocates, doctors and mental health professionals said the anti-transgender bills will have a devastating effect on an already vulnerable population.
Burgum signed a bill to do away with North Dakota’s defined-benefit pension plan for public employees. New hires will be put on a 401(k)-style retirement plan next year or in 2025.
Two bills competed on the future of the pension plan: one to close it and transition new hires, and one to preserve the plan. The latter failed. Both sought to address the pension’s $1.9 billion shortfall.
The signed bill will initially inject $219.2 million into the pension plan as part of a 30-year track to make it solvent, among other components.
State employees also will receive 6% and 4% raises in the first and second years of the next budget cycle, respectively, which begins July 1.
Republican lawmakers targeted sexual content in public libraries this session, passing a bill Burgum signed for removing or relocating “explicit sexual material” from public libraries’ children’s collections.
Burgum said the bill “standardizes the process for local public libraries to review material when requested by parents, library users or other members of the public — a process already in place and working at nearly all public libraries across the state."
He vetoed a broader bill that would have allowed misdemeanor criminal charges against librarians for “willfully” exposing “explicit sexual material” to minors.
The Legislature approved a two-year tuition freeze for North Dakota’s public colleges and universities, the first in about 28 years, representing about $47 million in savings for students. The move is meant to be competitive with surrounding states.
In the waning days of the session, lawmakers approved spending $6 million to provide low-income K-12 students with free school meals.
The move followed a highly publicized tug-of-war between the House and Senate, which initially rebuffed the school lunch bill.
Lawmakers also approved legislation that prohibits K-12 schools from denying meals provided through federal breakfast and lunch programs to students with unpaid meal balances.
The Legislature approved limits on electronic pull tab machines, which mimic slot machines and have proliferated in North Dakota since 2018.
Legislation would restrict where the machines can be located, how many machine sites a charitable organization can have and how many machines per site. Bars will also see an increase in rent for hosting the devices.
Burgum signed a primary seat belt enforcement law, which will require all occupants of a vehicle to wear a seat belt, not just those in front seats. Law enforcement officers could issue citations as a primary offense.
Until Aug. 1, not wearing a seat belt is a secondary offense, meaning officers can cite the offense only after another traffic infraction.
Oil tax trigger
Burgum and lawmakers approved several bills promoted by the powerful oil and gas industry, including legislation that eliminated a requirement that oil producers pay a heftier tax rate when the commodity’s price hits high levels. The so-called oil tax trigger generated $117 million in state tax revenue last summer when oil prices hit near-record levels.
Other industry-backed bills will create tax breaks for “refracking” old wells and establish a state-contracted middleman to handle disputes between royalty owners and oil companies.
Insulin price cap
Lawmakers passed a bill that will set a cap on the price of insulin for about 60,000 current and retired public employees and their dependents who are covered by the Public Employees Retirement System.
The price cap could be expanded to all insured North Dakotans who qualify during the 2025 legislative session.
The Legislature is sending three ballot measures for voters to decide in the November 2024 general election.
One would restrict how citizens can amend the state constitution by increasing the petition signature threshold to put measures on the ballot, limiting measures to one subject, and requiring petition circulators to be North Dakota voters. Voters also would have to approve such measures twice, in the primary and general elections.
Another measure would replace outdated and offensive language in the state constitution relating to several state institutions for people with disabilities.
Voters also will decide whether to restrict how much of the Legacy Fund oil tax savings’ principal the Legislature can tap every two years, from 15% to 5%, by a two-thirds vote of each chamber. The fund sits at $8.8 billion.
Jeremy Turley is a reporter for Forum News Service. Jack Dura is a reporter for The Bismarck Tribune.