- Associated Press - Monday, January 16, 2017

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - North Dakota’s 65th legislative session is well underway and lawmakers are set to consider bills that range from medical marijuana and a state employee hiring freeze to limiting the amount of bonuses paid by the state’s chief executive.

A glimpse of what’s to come:

MEDICAL MARIJUANA

Legislators want more time to solve a number of issues in connection with the state’s voter-approved medical marijuana law.

A joint House and Senate meeting Monday will consider a proposal to delay the law until the end of July, or another date selected by the Legislature.

The initiated measure, which won 65 percent approval in November, allows the use of marijuana as medicine for people who suffer from one of several debilitating illnesses. North Dakota was one of four states that approved medical marijuana ballot measures on Election Day, though the approval in North Dakota surprised even the measure’s backers.

North Dakota’s Health Department estimates medical marijuana will cost the state more than $3.5 million a year and a small army of workers to regulate.

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KING DAY

The Legislature has a normal schedule of hearings and floor debates Monday, despite the federal and state holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. The prominent civil rights leader was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968.

Lawmakers approved a state holiday to honor King in 1991, but the Legislature has never taken the day off.

It is customary for lawmakers to work on state holidays, including Presidents’ Day and Good Friday, when they fall during the legislative session.

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GOVERNOR BONUSES

The North Dakota House is to vote this week on a measure that would limit employee bonuses from the governor.

The move comes after then-Gov. Jack Dalrymple approved nearly $100,000 in retention bonuses for five staffers in 2015. It was the first time a governor had used the bonus program.

Dalrymple defended the bonuses, saying they were paid to keep key people in his administration after he decided to not seek re-election.

Leaders of both parties criticized the bonuses, and the president of the union that represents more than 11,500 public employees said the bonuses to Dalrymple’s inner circle hurt state employees’ morale.

The House Government and Veterans Affairs Committee unanimously agreed last week to recommend that the limits be approved. The legislation would limit bonuses to not more than 10 percent of the employee’s annual salary or five thousand dollars, whichever is less.

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STATE EMPLOYEE HIRING FREEZE

House Majority Leader Al Carlson, Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner and their fellow GOP leaders of the appropriations committees are pushing legislation to block state agencies from filling any vacant positions until the end of April.

The measure, which almost certainly will be approved this week, comes amid a downturn in oil and agriculture prices and a fuzzy revenue picture for the next two-year budget cycle.

Former Gov. Dalrymple had suggested reducing 583 full-time state employees, though he said many of those positions are already unfilled and others would come through attrition or retirements.

Gov. Burgum hasn’t yet proposed a budget.

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PIPELINE POLICING LOAN

The Legislature is set to take out an additional $8 million loan this week through the state-owned Bank of North Dakota to help pay the policing bill for Dakota Access pipeline protests.

It would bring to $25 million the total line of credit to cover law enforcement costs related to the protests in North Dakota.

State-related enforcement costs already have surpassed $20 million, with agencies such as the Corrections Department and Transportation Department using money from their own budgets with the intent of repaying it later.

Morton County, where most of the protest activity has taken place, has another $2.5 million in costs not covered by the state, bringing the total cost to taxpayers to nearly $22.5 million.

Most of the money is going to pay personnel costs.

The federal government has not chipped in despite pleas from state officials.

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