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North Dakota Capitol notebook: House passes higher ed budget bill

BISMARCK — Despite concerns about funding cuts for North Dakota universities, state lawmakers passed a slimmer higher education budget bill Friday, April 14.

Senate Bill 2003 includes more than $610 million in general fund spending for the state's campuses and university system, which is a little more than the higher education appropriation in the 2009-11 funding cycle but amounts to a nearly 32 percent cut from what lawmakers agreed to spend two years ago. The bill includes a fraction of the one-time spending that lawmakers authorized for the 2015-17 biennium.

Legislators have looked to slash budgets in the face of reduced tax revenue this session, but the higher education cuts didn't sit well with some lawmakers.

"I'm all about getting rid of the fat ... but these are deep, impactful cuts that will affect enrollment and will erode all the success and progress we've made in recent years," said Rep. Alisa Mitskog, D-Wahpeton.

The bill caps tuition increases for resident students at 4 percent for the 2017-18 and 2018-19 academic years. The cap doesn't apply to graduate programs, nonresident students or rates determined by reciprocity agreements.

The bill passed the House in a 77-10 vote and is expected to land in a conference committee.

Internet sales tax bill signed

Large out-of-state sellers will have to collect and remit sales tax under a bill signed by North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum on Monday.

Senate Bill 2298, introduced by Sen. Dwight Cook, R-Mandan, was promoted by business groups as a way to balance the scales between brick-and-mortar stores and online retailers. The National Conference of State Legislatures estimated North Dakota lost $31.3 million in uncollected sales tax from remote sellers in fiscal year 2012.

The bill won't become effective until the the U.S. Supreme Court confirms a state may impose a sales or use tax on an out-of-state seller or overturns its 1992 decision in Quill v. North Dakota. In that case, the court said North Dakota couldn't make the mail-order catalog business collect sales tax because the existing system was too complicated, but state tax officials have said updated software has removed that burden.

PERS changes debated

A conference committee made up of House and Senate lawmakers debated a study provision included in the budget bill for the North Dakota Public Employees Retirement System on Friday.

House Bill 1023 asks for a legislative study of the PERS board's powers and duties, changing the contract bidding process to every two years and the feasibility of implementing a self-funded insurance plan.

The Senate on Thursday unanimously rejected a bill requiring PERS to establish a self-insurance plan for hospital, medical and prescription drug benefits coverage.

Under a self-funded plan, state insurance premiums would be pooled into a reserve fund to pay claims and administrative expenses, according to a news release from the office of House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo. The state's current plan has been described as a "hybrid" rather than a traditional fully insured setup.

The House passed the bill in a 71-19 vote in late March, despite concerns it would affect the PERS contract with Sanford Health Plan. Carlson had argued it would help the state control rising premiums and provide more flexibility in plan design, but he said employees wouldn't be affected.

Senate members of conference committee on House Bill 1023 argued the idea needed more time to be vetted.

Burgum signs firearm storage bill

Burgum signed a bill Tuesday creating a new exemption to the ban on firearms at public gatherings.

It's a Class B misdemeanor to possess a firearm or dangerous weapon at sporting events, schools, churches and public buildings, although there are several exceptions in state law.

House Bill 1279 says the prohibition doesn't apply to a person storing a firearm in a building that's owned or managed by the state or a political subdivision, as long as the person lives in the building, stores the firearm in their "assigned residential unit" and they've received permission from the state, governing board or a designee.

A previous version of the bill, introduced by Rep. Ben Koppelman, R-West Fargo, drew concerns from the North Dakota University System that it would apply to residence hall directors or resident assistants living in university housing. But a lawmaker said last month the bill included adequate safeguards and wasn't aimed at university residences.

NDUS spokeswoman Billie Jo Lorius said the State Board of Higher Education created a policy that acknowledges the bill and "indicates that authority to grant permission lies exclusively with SBHE or the institution presidents.

"The safety and security of our students and employees is our primary concern, and we are diligent in any and all considerations of firearms and dangerous weapons on campus," she added.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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