Rod St. Aubyn: There Is A Real Need For Legislative Studies

dale sandstrom

As the legislature begins to finalize bills with appropriations or fiscal impacts in each house, a lot of the policy committees are beginning to have hearings on study resolutions.

While some may scoff at these study resolutions, many are very sincere efforts to take a longer and more deliberative review of complicated issues.

I bring a couple of issues as examplesthe first being Common Core. I had the opportunity to visit with a new legislator over lunch one day in the cafeteria. I asked him what his opinion was of his legislative experience so far. He expressed frustration with the fast pace in dealing with bills. In particular, he was lucky” enough to listen to the 5 hour debate on Common Core.

On that day, he was bombarded by people from both ends of the spectrum to urge him to vote their way on the complex bill. He wanted to have more time to study the issue before making a decision. He, like many others, heard conflicting testimony and did not feel comfortable about making a decision so quickly. Unfortunately, that is the way it is on many legislative issues.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]I had to chuckle with one person’s characterization of the Common Core hearing. He said there were so many “tin hats” in the Brynhild Haugland room that it was causing radio interference throughout the building.[/mks_pullquote]

I had to chuckle with one person’s characterization of the Common Core hearing. He said there were so many “tin hats” in the Brynhild Haugland room that it was causing radio interference throughout the building. I am not sure if that is a fair characterization, but many are very passionate about the subject.

I am far from an expert on the topic. I have only seen anecdotal examples and different opinion stories, but have not studied the issue in depth. From what I have seen I think that opponents of Common Core may have a few valid points, but I also think that the proponents have some good arguments. Based on my discussions with this committee member, this is a classic example of an issue that should not have been offered as a bill yet, but instead should have been introduced as a study resolution.

An interim legislative committee could have studied the issue in depth for the approximately 1 ½ years that these interim committees meet and then make a recommendation for a bill draft for the 2017 Legislative Session. Unfortunately, if this bill is defeated, they may have lost a perfect opportunity to study the issue.

Another study example (HB 1378) was introduced as a bill and not as a study resolution. Unfortunately, the intent of Rep. Keiser’s bill was totally mischaracterized about a week ago on SAB in an article giving an update on bills to be heard last week. The column stated the following:

As you may recall, Rep. George Keiser stood pretty much alone in his efforts to have North Dakota set up state-based exchanges under Obamacare. He is back with HB 1378, which sticks the camel’s nose under the tent again; this time with a study relating to the feasibility of implementing these exchanges. He stands pretty much alone again, as he is the only sponsor on this bill. The state stayed away from these exchanges like they were the plague, and this proved to be a very astute move.

A few years gone by has not made Obamacare any better of an idea, nor has it made state exchanges right for the state. We will be best served by not giving any level of credibility to them through even a study, let alone seriously considering their implementation in North Dakota.

In reality, HB 1378 does not propose studying “the feasibility of implementing these (state) exchanges or anything close to that. Under the ACA, the Secretary of HHS is specifically given the authority to determine the “essential health benefits”. Luckily, HHS initially gave states a limited

ability to determine a “benchmark plan” among several options which would basically determine what that state’s “essential health benefits would be. As a result, an interim legislative committee previously reviewed plan options and suggested the “benchmark plan” in determining the essentials benefits for our state to the Insurance Commissioner and the Governor. That authority given to the states was for a limited time period.

HHS has not yet disclosed how they will handle the essential health benefits for future years (beyond 2017). This study bill says that a legislative interim committee would review any new rules on this subject and if states are again given the authority to determine the essential health benefits for all health plans, the legislature will have input on this decision and not just left with the state executive branch or the federal government. In addition, if there are any changes made with the ACA as a result of court action (Supreme Court set to decide on subsidies this June), this interim committee would study how it would impact the essential health benefits for plans offered in North Dakota.

Without this study, possible decisions on determining the essential health benefits may have been totally decided by the state executive branch or the federal government with no guarantee of review by the legislative branch. The legislature saw the merit in this study and the full House approved the bill with no debate on February 5 by a vote of 76 to 16.

Legislative studies often are a very valuable exercise for drafting future legislation after extensive hearings. Complex issues are often best refined through legislative interim studies rather than pursuing legislation on very controversial issues. Also legislative studies allow legislators to separate “fact from fiction” when time is so limited during a legislative session. They aren’t needed for every issue, but are invaluable for some.