Attorney General: PERS Can Continue To Operate Without A Budget

In an embarrassing turn of events for the Republican majorities in the legislature, the 2015 legislative session ended earlier this year without a finalized budget for the Public Employees Retirement System. The Senate and House were at an impasse over legislation concerning a decision by the PERS board to move the health insurance policies from Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota to Sanford Health Insurance.

The House’s position is that the PERS board made the move too quickly, with few assurances that Sanford (a relatively new player in the health insurance arena) can handle health insurance policies for tens of thousands of state employees (and lawmakers, I should add).

The Senate’s position is that any legislative meddling in the contract signed with Sanford could turn into a legal quagmire.

It seems now that the Legislature will call itself back into session – the first time lawmakers will have used that authority since they gave it to themselves during the Ed Schafer administration (Schafer tried to veto it but was overruled) – to finalize the PERS budget. Already Legislative Management has appointed a committee to work out differences in advance of the full Legislature meeting again.

But before that process got started an opinion was requested of Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem concerning whether or not PERS could continue to operate under their existing budget without the Legislature approving a new budget for the coming biennium which begins on July 1.

Today Stenehjem issued his opinion, and he says PERS can continue to operate at current spending levels. You can read the full opinion below, but here’s an excerpt from his conclusion:

www ag.nd.gov-Opinions-2015-Letter-2015-L-04.pdf

So the Legislature doesn’t technically have to call themselves back into session to pass a PERS budget. Per Stenehjem, PERS can continue to operate at current appropriation levels.

That said, it would be far from an optimal situation for PERS, and I hardly think the Legislature wants to set a precedent whereby they can punt on their obligation to budget. From what I’ve been hearing from lawmakers over the past week or so they’ll be meeting again – probably on June 16 – to finish this issue once and for all despite the AG’s opinion.

North Dakota politicians often think it’s fashionable to deride the political machinations of Washington DC, and in their criticisms they’re often right, but this sorry episode was far to reminiscent of DC politics.

It’s understandable that there are strong opinions on this issue, but the Legislature handles contentious issues every time it comes into session. That’s their job. There’s no excuse for not getting the job done.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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