By Tom Gerhardt, NDU Director of Public Affairs

Where do I even start?

That’s the phrase that immediately popped into my mind as I began to think about this week’s Legislative Update. We are in the final days of the 65th Legislative Assembly, known as the Third Period, and that means multiple daily conference committees as members of the House meet members of the Senate to attempt to hash out differences on bills. There’s been a whirlwind of activity.

(It also means that Tom lives at the Capitol, now. If any of you should happen to see him, tell him hello from me. And that I took his office. I have two offices now. — editor’s note)

Budget issues continue to be the order of the day, and so perhaps it shouldn’t have come as any surprise (but it kind of did) that Governor Burgum sent out a letter to state agencies this week, offering what he calls a “Voluntary Separation Incentive Program.”

Letter that was e-mailed to state agencies.

The offer applies to 3,600 of 6,300 full-time equivalent (FTE) employees statewide including the following 10 state agencies: Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Office of Financial Institutions, Department of Health, Department of Human Services, Securities Department, Workforce Safety and Insurance, Highway Patrol, Adjutant General, Commerce and Parks and Recreation.

Employees have three options if they agree to the offer. They include receiving a lump sum of three months’ pay and benefits, spreading that out over three months or receiving a year of paid health insurance. Each participating agency will need to find money in its budget for the program that ends May 22.

The governor’s office cites an “unprecedented $1.5 billion revenue shortfall” as the reason for the separation program.

President Archuleta appeared on “News & Views” with Joel Heitkamp on Wednesday to talk about the program. He was also quoted in the Fargo Forum, and interviewed by both KX News and KFYR-TV.

Bo Evans of KFYR-TV interviews President Archuleta on Governor Burgum’s buyout program.

There’s no word on how many people or what budget number the governor is trying to reach with the program.

HB 1436

There hasn’t been much movement on this PERS bill that Rep. Al Carlson introduced as a delayed bill late in the session.

NDPERS Executive Director Sparb Collins testifies neutral on HB 1436.

A packed committee room listened to testimony on the bill. That included Representative Carlson explaining his reasons for moving PERS health insurance to self-insured. It’s a complicated topic, so I’ll repost President Nick Archuleta’s explanation from last week as NDU continues to look at the bill.

“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. Representative 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,” Archuleta said.

The bill is in conference committee, and key lawmakers have had closed-door meetings to try to find common ground on the issue. An important note to pass along, all sides agree that if the PERS plan changes to self-insured, health insurance for public employees would remain the same as it is under the current plan. Of course, that is subject to change in two years.

SB 2003

Another bill making waves this week is the higher education budget bill. The House Appropriations Committee amended the bill to end NDSU’s management of the department of nursing in Bismarck in July of 2018. Bismarck Tribune reporter Nick Smith provides more context in this article. Needless to say, the move set off a social media firestorm. Nursing students showed up at the Capitol and at the State Board of Higher Education meeting this week. It appears a resolution is in the works.

I also learned in committee this week that roughly 700 positions in higher education will be cut, whether through buyouts, positions left open or reduction in force (RIF). Combined with more than 600 public employees, the number of jobs lost will be in the neighborhood of 1,400.

Former Grand Forks Herald editor and publisher Mike Jacobs is writing this session for the North Dakota Newspaper Association. He weighed in on higher education this week, and on the importance of the campus experience.

SB 2139

We got another surprise early in the week when we found out about an amendment to SB 2139 from Rep. Dwight Keifert. The amended language states that “an elected official” can have a gun (with a class 2 permit) in a public gathering. When you read the fine print in Century Code in the bill, that would include schools, athletic events and churches. Senate members were quick to refuse to concur on the bill.

HB 1013

This is the funding bill for K-12. Senator and Appropriations Chair Ray Holmberg reiterated that K-12 has been a top priority for many years and did not take cuts like other programs. On the floor, Sen. Don Schaible said he was thankful Measure 2 passed (thanks to North Dakota United!) to help make sure K-12 was held harmless. The bill passed, 47–0. Sen. Holmberg was especially happy that the Senate appropriation for K-12 was $7,514 less than the House appropriation. You can see there is a little competition between the chambers!

SB 2135

This is the bill that calls for an initiated and referred measure study. Initially, North Dakota United was included as a member of the commission that will look at things like process, cost and the effect of out-of-state funding on initiated and referred measures. However, NDU was removed from the list, along with a representative of a tribal nation.

(We’re not incredibly happy about this. — editor’s meme)

The bill is now in conference committee, and it looks unlikely that NDU will be put back on the commission. Conference committees are made up of three members of the House and three members of the Senate. Two of the three members of each chamber must agree on differences for the bill to move out of conference committee or it would be killed. You can help, though! CLICK HERE to easily send an e-mail to all six members of the conference committee, and urge them to add educators’ and public employees’ voice back onto this commission.

An NDU member could still be named to the commission by the Governor at a later date, but we believe we should be included from the outset because of our experience in the initiated and referred measure process.

Bills in Brief

SB 2272 — The Senate concurred on amendment to this bill, and it passed 47–0 with an emergency clause. It had passed the House earlier this week, 88–3. 2272 is the bill that uses Foundation Aid Stabilization funds (which they can now use thanks to Measure 2 and NDU — editor’s note) to help hold K-12 harmless this coming biennium. It also consolidates three construction loans and puts them in one place.

Rapid enrollment money dropped from $10 million to $6 million in the bill, and English Language Learner (ELL) dollars dropped from $1 million to $500,000, although lawmakers say HB 1013 has an increase for ELL. The bill also holds Career and Technical Education whole from allotments in the future (if ordered by governor).

HB 1318 — This bill will study the state aid funding for K-12 and look at the formula to determine how to sustain tax buydowns. The House concurred today on amendments, 51–36. One thing worth noting: Rep. Rick Becker did get education savings accounts (vouchers — editor’s note) in as part of the study. We’ll keep a close eye on that during the interim.

HB 1324 — This is the policy bill for K-12, with some notable amendments. The Senate Appropriations Committee restored $4.1 million for transportation — a significant rebound from what House Appropriations proposed. It puts Regional Education Associations (REAs) under yearly audit and incentivizes REAs to regionalize to four from its current eight. The per-pupil payment will remain at $9,646 in the coming biennium — the same number as the 2015–17 biennium.

Today (April 7) is day 64 of what lawmakers had hoped to be a 70-day session, but the session will at the least extend into the following week.

Communications Director (and editor of this weekly missive — editor’s note) Kelly Hagen is back Monday for our 4:30 CST Facebook Live. (I was in a different state during last week’s broadcast, but some good Samaritans found me and kindly mailed me back to the address stamped on my forehead. — editor’s note) And we’re overjoyed to have him back. Make sure you join us, too! Just log onto our Facebook page at 4:30 on Monday, and click on the Live video post at the top of the feed. We’ll be happy to answer any questions you may have.

Until then, enjoy the weekend. I understand 70 + degree temperatures are in the forecast!

And remember, United we can make a difference.