By Tom Gerhardt, NDU Director of Public Affairs

The session has been filled with ups and downs (If you’re familiar with the Konami Code, it’s been kind of like that: up, up , down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, select, start — editor’s note), but it’s been a good week for North Dakota United. We were able to influence the outcomes on two bills on which we worked passionately — to advance one, and to defeat another.

There was an interesting contrast between HB 1310 and SB 2186. HB 1310 was a bill that had no support from education stakeholder groups, and little support elsewhere, yet some lawmakers worked incredibly hard to pass it. While SB 2186 had unanimous support from education groups, representing administration, teachers and students, and a group of lawmakers worked very hard to defeat it.

Nevertheless, we were happy to see both bills go in our favor.

HB 1310

Let’s start HB 1310 which would have provided a pilot program for first armed responders at up to 10 schools in North Dakota. NDU opposed the bill on a variety of fronts, including the fact that no schools testified in support of the bill in either House or Senate committee. Several schools testified against the bill during its initial hearing in the House, in fact. Secondly, our polling showed that the majority of our members opposed the idea. We set up a form for our members to send e-mails easily to their senators about HB 1310, and 98 percent of the messages that were sent to the Legislature were advocating a position against this bill. Finally, while NDU does support highly trained School Resource Officers (SROs) or retired law enforcement in schools, we do not support anyone else with limited training carrying concealed in our schools.

With bipartisan support, the Senate defeated HB 1310 by a vote of 27–18. You can read about some of the debate on the Senate floor in this Nick Smith article in the Bismarck Tribune.

Nick Smith of the Bismarck Tribune interviews NDU President Archuleta.

Smith interviewed President Archuleta earlier in the week when the bill came out of committee, and you can read about that here.

Senate defeats HB 1310, by a vote of 27–18.

SB 2186

NDU claimed another victory the same day in the House, passing SB 2186, the education innovation measure, by a vote of 75–17.

SB 2186 allows local school districts to submit plans, approved by local school boards, to the Department of Public Instruction for waivers to allow for innovation in the classroom. It’s worth noting the plan would also need support from parents, community members, teachers and staff. (Experience tells us that when you can get all the stakeholders in education to agree on one idea, it’s usually a pretty good one. — editor’s note)

The bill, which is a pilot program, has unanimous support from education associations, the Department of Public Instruction and multiple school districts, who are waiting to submit plans for approval.

While innovation is already taking place in classrooms across the state, SB 2186 will allow locals to customize learning, and then measure and report successes.

As an example, Northern Cass Superintendent Cory Steiner says that starting in the 8th and 9th grades, students at his school will begin taking core courses with the goal of finishing them by the end of their sophomore year. He says that will open the door for students to engage in passion areas during their junior and senior years.

We at NDU think this is a big opportunity and a huge win for education in North Dakota! The Senate concurred on the bill Friday afternoon, and it’s on to the Governor for his signature!

House votes 75–17 to pass SB 2186.

North Dakota United President Nick Archuleta sent out this message to give credit for all of the valuable advocacy work that was done by NDU members and staff, which helped lead to victories on the two bills.

SB 2243

The news isn’t as favorable on another bill that NDU supported. SB 2243 began as a teacher loan forgiveness bill that would have provided up to $25,000 of loan forgiveness for new teachers if they taught a critical need subject in a critical-need geographic area for three years. It began with a $6 million appropriation, was amended to $2 million, and ultimately amended into a study. The House voted 76–14 on the floor this week to pass the bill as a study.

NDU, DPI and others thought this bill could be a real step with ream money in the direction of helping solve the teacher shortage in North Dakota (We had over 200 open positions going into this school year, according to DPI. — editor’s note).

The same day, the House voted on SB 2037, which is a loan forgiveness bill on a much smaller scale. An amendment to the bill combined two programs currently in place and put a $1000 annual limit and $5000 maximum limit on loan forgiveness. The vote was 82–8 in favor.

HB 1436

Another significant bill we are keeping a close eye on is HB 1436, a delayed bill offered by Rep. Al Carlson that would change PERS health coverage to a self-insured plan.

President Archuleta explains the difference between our current plan and the one proposed by Rep. Carlson:

“Right now, the PERS health plan is a fully insured hybrid plan, and Sanford assumes all the risks. When expenses come in less than expected, PERS splits the profits with Sanford. If PERS switches to a self-funded plan, then a company like Sanford or BCBS would administer the plan but PERS would assume all the risk and keep all the profits, if any. Most large businesses and school districts in the state are self -insured. Every other state that offers insurance to its employees is self-insured, so I’m told. Rep. Carlson wants NDPERS to be a self-insured plan because, he claims, N.D. would be better suited to control its costs and spend less for the same coverage. What we are in the process of figuring out is how that could happen without diminishing the coverage currently provided for by the PERS plan as it is set up now.”

HB 1406 & HB 1407

HB’s 1406 and 1407 are both related to PERS, and were both defeated on the Senate floor today. HB 1406 went down 44–0, and HB 1407 was 43–1.

Bills in Brief

HB 1324 — This is the policy bill for the K-12 funding formula. The big news this week is Senate Appropriations put $4.1 million back into transportation and restored $2.1 million for the teacher mentoring program.

REAs had funding amended from $800,000 to $500,000, with an added $100,000 in incentives if REA’s reorganize from eight to four in North Dakota.

SB 2272 — A couple of notes on SB 2272, where House Appropriations voted to cut English Language Learner (ELL) money from $1 million to $500,000. Also, rapid enrollment dollars have been dropped from $10 million to $6 million. To qualify, schools must prove 4 percent growth from the prior year.

SB 2003 — Another story you should be aware of took place away from the Capitol. On Thursday, Rep. Al Carlson paid a visit to the State Board of Higher Education (SBHE) where he proposed a study of two-year community colleges in the state. This study is an amendment to SB 2003. Higher education would study the issue and report to the 66th Legislative Assembly in 2019.

HB 1361 — This bill, also proposed by Representative Carlson, would cap property tax increased at 3 percent unless approved by voters. There was significant opposition to this bill in committee, including from school districts across the state. Amendments have been offered, and the House Finance and Tax Committee is expected to work on it Monday morning. A cap on property tax increases could put school districts in tough spots if they encounter unexpected expenses.

SB 2135 — This bill is a study of the initiated measure process. NDU was removed from the study committee, and we are hoping we will be added when the bill reaches conference committee. NDU President Archuleta spoke out in a Fargo Forum article.

John Hageman of the Fargo Forum interviews NDU President Nick Archuleta.

Here’s another update. Legislators had been hoping to wrap up the session on Good Friday, saving 10 days to come back at a later date in order to work on issues associated with the Affordable Care Act. It’s now known the session will extend at least into the following week. We’ll keep you posted.

A lot of work remains to be done in Appropriations Committees, including budgets for colleges and universities. Rest assured we will continue our work in both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees until the end of the session. Pay close attention to your e-mail for Action Alerts around budgets and appropriations. We will need your voices in this fight!

Coming up this Monday, don’t forget to join Nick and me at 4:30 p.m. CDT for our weekly Facebook Live presentation. Our special guest will be House Minority Leader Corey Mock. We’ll be talking about taxes and potential revenue streams. Representative Mock always has some interesting ideas.

(And a big heart. — editor’s meme)

On a final note, special thanks to NDU members who reached out to legislators — especially the past couple of weeks on HB 1310 and SB 2186. I heard several times from both chambers that lawmakers were hearing from our members. Your voice counts!

United, we can make a difference.