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Legislators list policy highlights of 2021 session

The 2021 Legislature addressed a number of policy issues that Minot’s Republican legislators say will steer the state in a good direction.

Sen. Randy Burckhard listed some positive changes for families of military personnel. Those changes provide free college tuition to dependents of military personnel who die or are disabled in line of duty, allow military spouses to claim unemployment benefits when they lose employment due to a military transfer and give occupational licensing boards more flexibility during an emergency to license practitioners coming from other states.

Rep. Randy Schobinger was pleased with a decision that will begin moving female prisoners from the state’s New England correctional facility to available space previously used by the Youth Correctional Center in Mandan. He said an increased emphasis on community-based services for youth has created the available space, allowing the state in the coming biennium to bring 30 of the female prisoners closer to treatment and health services that are more available in the urban area.

Sen. David Hogue said the Legislature acted to address a nursing shortage by matching up to $4,000 in incentives provided by medical facilities to recruit nurses. He also was happy with passage of a Challenge grant bill for higher education that carried the stipulation that the institutions do not associate with organizations that perform or advocate for abortion.

“I think the Senate version achieved the right balance of discouraging our universities from associating with these organizations,” he said.

Rep. Bob Paulson co-sponsored the “stand your ground” bill.

“That combined with some other Second Amendment bills led the governor to sign a proclamation declaring North Dakota a Second Amendment sanctuary state. I think that was a good thing that we accomplished,” Paulson said.

Rep. Jay Fisher also cited the Second Amendment bills as positive legislation coming out of the session. Among other positive actions, he listed policies that allow students to earn high school credits for internships and that give residents in long-term care the right to have an essential caregiver, such as a family member, with them.

Rep. Jeff Hoverson said his highlight was the passage of his mask freedom bill, which, as amended, prohibits the governor or state health officer from imposing a mask mandate. Hoverson said the bill generated a large amount of citizen response and involvement.

“That’s probably the highlight of all highlights is watching and hearing and seeing the people really get passionate, excited and involved,” he said. “A lot of these movements that are going on in North Dakota are being led by conservative women. I’m really just proud of them.”

He also was pleased with passage of a bill that allows school boards to decide whether to post the Ten Commandments in their schools.

District 3 representatives will be hosting a legislative review to discuss morality bills and other legislation of interest to the church this Sunday at 6:30 p.m. in Living Word Church, 710 46th Ave. NE. The public is invited.

Sen. Oley Larsen called the session a “huge success,” noting the passage of infrastructure bonding, Second Amendment rights bills, the mask freedom bill and rejection of recreational marijuana.

Larsen said it was disappointing to have the pandemic limit in-person public participation, restricting opportunities for constituents to join their representatives on the floor or for organizations to set up information booths in the Great Hall. The personal interaction was missed, he said.

“But overall, it was a great session,” he said. “It just felt good.”

Burckhard said new technology that allowed for virtual testimony helped increase public engagement. The Political Subdivisions Committee he chaired received virtual testimony from as far away as San Francisco, and based on the increased testimony seen this session, he believes the technology will have long-term value to the state.

Fisher also said he missed the face-to-face interaction but believes there was value in the transparency and access that came with technology. He also felt good about the work done.

“All in all, I was pleased with what we were able to accomplish,” Fisher said.

Highlights included funding for infrastructure, from NAWS and flood control to the intermodal facility and safety improvements on U.S. Highway 52, he said. The budget provides increased funding for mental health and suicide prevention, larger property tax credits for veterans and research in agriculture and energy, he said.

The Legislature also provided for a five-year tax recess on the coal conversion tax.

“Baseload power energy is second to none and that was in jeopardy, so we helped with the tax recess,” Fisher said. “We just did a lot in trying to help advance coal technology, flared natural gas technology.”

Rep. Scott Louser said major legislation was passed to update the state’s voting system to secure an already secure system. The changes may not be noticeable to voters, he said.

“It’s just that they can be more confident than ever that their vote is going to be counted accurately,” he said. “We did leave some room for technological improvements in the future.”

The Legislature approved language giving voters 30 minutes after polls close to cast their ballots for counting on election night. Ballots cast after the 30 minutes will be counted by the canvassing boards, which will meet 13 days after the election rather than the current six days. Louser said the additional days give the state and counties more time to update the Central Voter File to aid in accurate recounts when necessary.

Louser also successfully pushed legislation to create a permanent, low-interest disaster assistance fund at the Bank of North Dakota for individuals and communities. The $50 million fund would be created with loan repayments in the original Rebuilders Loan Program, established to aid in rebuilding after the 2011 Souris River flood. Those loans should all be fully matured by September 2022, Louser said.

Democrats mark wins in 2021 session

Advancements in health care, education, infrastructure and equality issues were highlights of the 2021 legislative session, according to Democratic-NPL lawmakers.

Successes include bonding for long-term needs, even though the $680 million approved fell short of the $2 billion sought, party leaders said.

“We are encouraged that our Republican colleagues now see the need to utilize bonding to move forward these kinds of programs,” Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, said. “While not the more expansive, more responsive result we proposed, this legislation will allow important action on infrastructure needs in communities across the state, create good-paying jobs, help reduce the impact of property taxes and free up general fund dollars to fund other crucial priorities.”

Democrats also were successful in passing a bill that provides continuing health care coverage for spouses and children of first responders killed in the line of duty.

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