Welcome to Week 3 of the 64th Legislative Assembly. This is the second installment of a weekly feature we are trying on SAB, which seeks to highlight the activities of the Legislature this week as well as any which may be occurring because of their biennial meeting (e.g. Converge on the Capital from last week). Most highlights will focus on committee meetings for bills we are keeping an eye on, although they may not necessarily be bills which are used for scoring the assembly on their votes this session.
As mentioned last week, we will not try to catch all the highlights for an upcoming week. There is too much happening to do that, and what constitutes a highlight is also a matter of perspective. If, however, you feel there are activities happening which we did not feature, feel free to share them with the readership in the comments.
If there are other events occurring you are aware of in the weeks ahead which may not be reflected on the official Legislative Assembly calendar, feel free to email those in to Rob for consideration.
Monday, January 19th
ND University System Budget
This hearing is the first of several currently on the calendar over the course of the week. The appropriation sought is in excess of $1 Billion (not counting some other special spending included in the bill), making it one of the larger appropriations bills to be considered by the Legislature. With North Dakota increasing their financial support to higher education by 159% while only seeing an uptick in enrollment of 9%, why we continue to lavish the system with more largess from the treasury becomes more and more a legitimate concern.
Mandatory Civics Testing
Fresh off it’s expedited near-unanimous passage in the House (with only Rep. Gail Mooney voting Nay), the Civics bill reported on last week already has a hearing scheduled in the Senate. Normally, bills are heard after crossover in the other chamber unless there is a dire need to get them though both and on the Governor’s desk. That dire need just doesn’t look like it is there; the bill does not even have an emergency clause which would make it effective upon the Governor’s signature.
Unless a pet project makes it a dire need. No matter. Philosophically, we have no objection to this bill. Our concern remains the low bar that has been set for passing the test. It was amended from it’s original version to bump up the passage requirement to 70% in the second year. We would still rather see 80% to 90% due to the importance of the material, and the fact that it will impact their lives every day.
Virtual Public Schools Study
This sounds like a very intriguing proposal. While the bill proposes a study at this point, the potential for where such a concept could lead could have a huge impact on the delivery of K-12 education in the state.
On the surface, and without the benefits of the study, such virtual schools could definitely have a place in our education system. Whatever the outcome, a study of the concept is worth doing.
Tuesday, January 20th
Regional Education Associations
Based on the language of the bill, it appears that the intent is to allow for local school districts to form agreements with each other (overseen by regional associations) to consolidate delivery of educational services. On the surface this may not be a bad idea, but the concern may lie in what local control is being given up to such associations (if formed). The current bill does call for the governing board membership to be drawn from the existing membership of the school boards which would make up an association, but will that be enough in light of what such associations could be empowered to do?
[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]…school boards are getting more and more disconnected from the systems they are charged with overseeing on behalf of those who are paying for them. I can’t help but wonder if regional education associations will only widen that disconnectedness gap[/mks_pullquote]I have also often heard mentioned that school boards, more and more, are simply becoming an extension of the will of the Superintendent instead of a check and balance on it. That is in large part because we are making education much more complex than it probably needs to be. Education is so complex that only a full time Superintendent has adequate time to learn about and stay on top of it. A part time school board may feel they have no choice but to defer to the opinions of a Superintendent (in my opinion this is still an abdication of responsibility). Yet, that Superintendent is supposed to carry out the will of that board, who is elected by the people of that district. Because of this complexity, however, school boards are getting more and more disconnected from the systems they are charged with overseeing on behalf of those who are paying for them. I can’t help but wonder if regional education associations will only widen that disconnectedness gap.
Public Officials and Concealed Carry in Public Buildings
I don’t like the idea of elected officials living under a separate set of rules from the people they serve, and I don’t think anyone else does (well, except for maybe some elected officials). But I also don’t like the idea that one should be made defenseless simply because they are following rules based on the misguided concept that gun-free zones do anything besides let those who want to do harm know where they can find easy targets that won’t shoot back. It appears as if the intent of this bill, however, is a stepping stone towards eventually waking up to the utter absurdity of gun-free zones; taking a step towards eventually allowing anyone with a permit to carry to possess a weapon in a public building. If this indeed is a stepping stone and not an effort to create a second set of rules, then it truly is a step in the right direction.
Anti-Theft Functionality for Smartphones
[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]All a legal mandate will do is limit consumer choice by ruling out the availability of some smartphones which they may be interested in, but which don’t have the anti-theft technology in place. It will also artificially drive up the cost of smartphone technology[/mks_pullquote]Neat idea; so neat that it will likely be a consumer expectation when they are shopping around for a smartphone. Thus, market forces will do a better job ensuring this technology is available to those consumers who want it. And that is the key — this is an issue of consumer choice. All a legal mandate will do is limit consumer choice by ruling out the availability of some smartphones which they may be interested in, but which don’t have the anti-theft technology in place. It will also artificially drive up the cost of smartphone technology.
Consumers are smart enough to decide if anti-theft technology is something they want, and if enough consumers want it the technology it will eventually come standard anyways. The Legislature does not need to try and tell consumers they know what is best for them in this regard.
Legacy Fund Earnings
This bill will address the transfer of earnings from the Legacy Fund, which should lead to interesting discussion in light of recent concerns surrounding reduced revenues to the state from oil extraction taxes.
Wednesday, January 21st
Legislative Authority to Set Higher Education Tuition and Fees
This is an example of legislation where the simple adjustment of a few words in law can end up being an incredible game changer. This four page bill carries with it the following change as it pertains to the authorities of the State Board of Higher Education (SBHE):
Do you see what they did there?
This is a good change, and long overdue. The SBHE has long used their self-professed status as a 4th branch of state government to thumb their nose at the one of the actual three — and the one that possesses the power of the purse. What this change in law will do assert the authority of the Legislature over that power of the purse, and force higher education in this state to actually start prioritizing their spending. No longer will the starving children be able to independently raise tuition (as much as 48% at our research institutions despite a 159% increase in state funding) on starving students because the schools in the system can’t live within a budget.
[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]Because this makes sense, fully expect the higher education apologists within the system and within the Legislature to be out in force against this change. They have great imaginations, and it will be interesting to see what supposed impacts they will be able to dream up[/mks_pullquote]The Legislature is right to make this change, and it is a step in the right direction. It also properly and effectively leverages the authority of the Legislature over the revenues of what are in essence state agencies. Because this makes sense, fully expect the higher education apologists within the system and within the Legislature to be out in force against this change. They have great imaginations, and it will be interesting to see what supposed impacts they will be able to dream up.
The Democrats have been marginalized in this state, and have been forced to try and start fires where none exist. The #WarOnWomen is one of the fires it seems they want to start, in the hopes of dividing the populace and hopefully regaining some of their relevance. To start this fire, they have rolled out a favorite catalyst issue — perceptions of unequal pay.
The filing of these bills shows a respectable level of shrewdness for the super-minority party. If they pass, they can claim a victory that makes for a great soundbite without the need to fully explain if a problem actually existed. If they don’t pass, the Democrats have a soundbite issue to throw around in 2016 in an attempt to show how Republicans are conspiring with big business in a smoke-filled backroom to keep women down. Either way, the sponsors have something to run on for their existing offices or for statewide ones (especially the lone male sponsor, Sen. Mac Schneider, who is on the shortlist of gubernatorial candidates).
The exceptions clause in the state contracting bill (HB 1293) is pretty interesting. Pretty much every factor is allowed to authorize stratification of pay, except paying employees who are just better at their job more than those who are not.
Closing Up Access to Open Records
Starts at 9:00am
The impetus for at least two of these bills is clear. Higher Education in North Dakota absolutely hates and despises transparency, so much so that the Attorney General has scolded them for spending more time trying to avoid complying with open records and meetings laws than the time needed to follow them would take. He has a point, as the University System has broken the law 13 times since 2013. With a record like that, logic would dictate we need stronger punishment for open records violations, as what happens now is pretty much a farce.
[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]I would say shame on the University System for working to get these bills introduced, but that would require the University System to know and understand what shame is. They clearly do not.[/mks_pullquote]Instead, we have bills under consideration to make government less transparent, and thus less accountable to the people it serves and the Legislators elected by the people to among other things provide some oversight of that government. SB 2222 in part does eliminate the ability of Legislators to stay anonymous when requesting records, and that is fine. They should have to put their name next to a request they make. But overall these are bad bills that if passed will simply allow for more shenanigans in government, especially in Higher Education, because the mechanisms for oversight will be significantly weakened.
I would say shame on the University System for working to get these bills introduced, but that would require the University System to know and understand what shame is. They clearly do not.
HB 1337 will be heard on Thursday by the House Political Subdivisions Committee at 10:45am in the Prairie Room. This bill will require payment for records by the requester prior to their receipt, plus will enable an agency to treat as one request five or more separate requests received in seven days. On first glance this seems rational, but certain college presidents have in the past advised other college presidents to inflate the estimates of open records requests to hopefully scare off a requester. I see this change potentially as a mechanism to take that practice one step further.
Thursday, January 22nd
Public Employees Benefits
These bills address benefits for public employees for retirement and health insurance. HB 1062 does call for an increase in contributions from the employee, and HCR 3003 addresses a study for a potential initiation of employee contributions for their health insurance. Both are the right thing to do, but what is frustratingly missing from legislation regarding public employees is fundamental necessary change.
Defined Benefit programs by their own design will fail; it is only a matter of when. They are simply legalized Ponzi schemes. Their continuation is simply irresponsible, regardless of any explanations the Public Employees union can come up with for their continuation (indeed, continuation of these programs is the primary purpose for the existence of ND United). What needs to happen is the programs need to be made whole for those currently enrolled in them to fulfill the promise made to those employees, and new employees need to be set up under a Defined Contribution system. But it appears that, barring and surprise filings late in the game, the Legislature is once again content to kick this can down the road for another session.
[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]A bankrupt retirement plan cannot serve those who were told they could count on it being there when they most need it. This is an identified problem with a clear solution; the Legislative Assembly simply needs to have enough courage to act on that solution[/mks_pullquote]Incremental increases of employee contributions to a system which is inherently flawed is not a long term solution. That doesn’t do them any good in the long run, just as much as it doesn’t do the state’s taxpayers any good. A bankrupt retirement plan cannot serve those who were told they could count on it being there when they most need it. This is an identified problem with a clear solution; the Legislative Assembly simply needs to have enough courage to act on that solution.
Forbidding Purchase of Conservation Easements with Public Funds
The debate over Measure 5 leading up to it’s decisive defeat last November was one of the ugliest and costliest political battles ever waged in the state. HB 1197 if passed would further insulate the taxpayers from the potential for Measure 5-type shenanigans with their tax dollars:
Specifically, it is aimed at prohibiting government funding to the likes of Ducks Unlimited and other non-profits who lined up in support of Measure 5, so they could buy up land for conservation purposes (and to prevent oil development, which — lets be honest — was the real motivation behind that measure). After seeing the extent to which Measure 5 supporters were willing to go during the debate leading up to Election Day, legislation such as this is necessary to keep their environmental zealot-ism in check.
Hours for Headlight Illumination
This bill, if passed, will require headlights to be on from one hour before sunset to one hour after sunrise. Currently, they only need to be illuminated from sunset to sunrise.
The bill has only one sponsor, Rep Wes Belter, so I can only imagine that it was met with pretty low enthusiasm. In essence, you will have to check sun and moon data constantly to ensure compliance with the law, whereas sunset and sunrise are pretty obvious. It isn’t really clear what an hour before or after these events achieves from a safety standpoint either, in exchange for the inconvenience which will be caused through constantly having to look this information up (it changes daily). I am also not real sure how badly this legislation is needed since most vehicles on the road these days have automatic daytime running lights.
This does appear to be a dream for law enforcement though, as it provides a pretty easy criteria for a probable cause stop. If that is the reason for this bill, then hopefully they will come right out and say it.
$5,000 Per Child
Frankly this bill doesn’t make a lot of sense. Setting aside $5,000 per child in an account at the Bank of North Dakota for use in education seems like a nice thing to do, but is it something that can be sustained over time? More importantly, it makes college more of a de facto entitlement and less something that should be worked for. It is also hard to see how this program doesn’t violate the intent of the state Constitution as it pertains to direct payments, especially since the recipient is eligible to receive them in a near direct manner through their application to such things as a mortgage or nursing home expenses (if not spent towards tuition).
Federal Funding and State Agencies
From education to transportation and pretty much everything in between, the state has been receiving a larger share of federal funds than we send out to the Beltway in taxes. According to this report, North Dakota is second only to South Carolina in dollars taken versus dollars given. From a fiscal responsibility standpoint, is this really the right thing to do for a state as healthy as ours?
[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]These bills will in part force us to take a hard look at our dependency on federal funding as a state, so decisions can be made now for a time when it may no longer flow as freely to the state as it once did[/mks_pullquote]More importantly, the federal government has no money, and their rate of debt generation is unsustainable. There will come a point when they simply won’t be able to hand out money to the states on a whim. These bills will in part force us to take a hard look at our dependency on federal funding as a state, so decisions can be made now for a time when it may no longer flow as freely to the state as it once did.
Ending the Prohibition on Domestic Oil Exports
Many would say the passage of resolutions from the Legislature which express sentiments to Congress are vague platitudes. For the most part I would agree. But, I guess it never hurts to send along a message passed by both chambers to the next higher legislative body. Whether they act solely based on that resolution is another matter.
This specific resolution asks Congress to act on lifting an oil embargo we imposed on ourselves back in the 70’s. Why we would not want to be able to compete with other countries for a share of the world oil market is a mystery, especially now that we are in a position where we could effectively take on traditional oil exporting nations and have a decent chance of being competitive. Passage of this resolution won’t change anything, but it never hurts to be on record supporting such a step.
This bill addresses several gun rights concerns in one bill:
- Allowing use of short-barreled rifles for hunting
- Allowing concealed carry permit holders to legally carry in a retail liquor establishment so long as they are not drinking or under the influence
- Clarifying what a “public gathering” is as it relates to concealed carry restrictions
- Forbidding medical workers from asking patients about firearms ownership
- Carrying of loaded firearms in a vehicle
- Chief law enforcement officers responsibilities relating to the National Firearms Act
These are good changes to the law for much of the same reasons mentioned above for HB 1157. The current restrictions in place have not done anything but create places for the law abiding to be targets for those who wish to do harm. Firearms ownership is also none of anyone’s business but that of the owner.
Friday, January 23rd
24 Hour Sobriety Programs and Ignition Interlocks
This bill, if passed, will simply allow for the use of ignition interlocks as part of a 24 hour sobriety monitoring program. In many instances this could serve as an effective alternative to the current practice of an individual showing up twice daily every day for testing. There will be less strain on government resources with such an allowance, and less of an interruption to an individuals daily life (as well as that of their employer).
Publishing Minutes of Boards and Commissions
[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]For too long the Governor has been deafeningly silent about the problems in Higher Education, even though it is he who appoints members to the SBHE. When the minutes are published on his website, his connection to this board (and any others which may too start running recklessly someday) is crystal clear, as it should be[/mks_pullquote]While on the surface this bill doesn’t change much in law, it does simplify transparency for the citizen by providing them one place to go — the Governor’s Office website — for all minutes of open meetings held by boards and commissions to which the Governor appoints members. The change also directs such minutes be published withing 60 days of the meeting.
This will apply to entities such as the State Board of Higher Education, which oversees the state’s biggest lawbreakers when it comes to transparency. There is also a subtlety to this change which is somewhat uplifting. For too long the Governor has been deafeningly silent about the problems in Higher Education, even though it is he who appoints members to the SBHE. When the minutes are published on his website, his connection to this board (and any others which may too start running recklessly someday) is crystal clear, as it should be.