BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Conference committees will rule at the Capitol this week, as legislators continue seeking to reconcile bills. Lawmakers’ goal of finishing 10 days before a required May 1 deadline is looking fantastical, with several contentious measures and unfinished budget bills still to work through. Some of the major issues in play:
STATE EMPLOYEE BUYOUTS
North Dakota’s top budget writer says several state employees already have expressed interest in taking voluntary buyouts to help balance the state’s books.
Ten North Dakota cabinet-level agencies last week sent letters to some 3,600 employees asking whether they want to exit state employment early due to the state’s woeful financial picture. The most recent estimates are that revenues will fall about $448 million short of the state’s proposed $4.3 billion general fund spending plan for the next two-year budget cycle.
Budget director Pam Sharp says applications and other inquiries about the early buyouts began immediately after they were announced. Options range from a lump-sum payout of three months’ salary to accepting no pay but staying on the state’s health insurance plan for a year.
WHO OWNS WHAT UNDER THE LAKE?
Oil companies first tapped crude underneath Lake Sakakawea about a decade ago using advanced horizontal drill techniques. But the drilling technology that allows rigs to be set up far from the shoreline also opened up a years-long and messy dispute about who owns the mineral rights beneath the Missouri River reservoir when it flooded more than 150,000 acres of land.
The state, the federal government, land owners and oil companies all have an interest in oil that lies under the state’s biggest lake and a dispute over who owns what has led to lawsuits and a slowdown of drilling there due to the uncertainty.
The Legislature is now attempting to fix the problem.
At issue is whether mineral rights under the state’s biggest lake should be determined by a 1950s federal survey or a 2009 state survey that affects more private landowners. The House has endorsed a measure that supports the former.
But that means North Dakota would be on the hook for nearly $187 million it already has collected in royalty payments that must be returned, though it is unclear if the state still has all the money.
The bill now returns to the Senate. If senators do not agree with the House changes, it will head to a conference committee.
NURSING SCHOOL LIMBO
The Legislature has been steaming ever since the North Dakota Board of Higher Education three years ago approved a plan for North Dakota State University to take over the Sanford College of Nursing at Bismarck.
The board approved the plan over objections by some members that there wasn’t enough discussion. And lawmakers believe taxpayers got the short end of the stick, including a provision that bumps NDSU’s rent from $1 a year to nearly $400,000 annually beginning in July.
The Legislature is pushing an amendment to the higher education budget that would not allow any state money to be spent on the program.
Sanford Health, which is based in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Fargo, North Dakota, says it will rework the deal.
Rep. Al Carlson, the House majority leader, said he expects a new contract early in the week.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner says his chamber next week will approve House amendments to a comprehensive measure that regulates the state’s voter-approved medical marijuana initiative.
The measure, called the North Dakota Compassionate Care Act, won 65 percent voter approval in November. It allows the use of marijuana as medicine for people who suffer from debilitating illnesses.
The voter-approved version allowed far more freedom for citizens to grow and smoke the plant. Lawmakers removed provisions for growing it.
CAPITOL HALL NO LONGER GREAT
It’s not the Great Hall, after all. A portion of the first floor of the state Capitol is now designated by law as Memorial Hall.
Gov. Doug Burgum signed the one-page bill last week officially naming the section of the floor Memorial Hall, as it was described in original floor plans for the Capitol, completed in 1934.
Old habits are tough to break, however. Many still refer to it as the Great Hall, where a 440-pound bronze replica of North Dakota’s Great Seal hangs.
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