Legislature Adjourns Early Sunday Morning

The 68th Legislative Assembly worked straight through Saturday on two remaining bills until final approval and adjournment shortly before 3 a.m.

The budget for the Office of Management and Budget (SB 2015) is traditionally the last bill to be negotiated and ends up being the bill where any corrections or last minute attempts at getting dollars for a particular issue or project is pitched. This relatively simple budget bill collected numerous amendments (in this case 35) by the time it became law.   One such amendment was a required study of guardianship programs that came on the heels of a surprising, but much needed, increase to the guardianship program managed by NDACo.  This budget item was increased from $2.45 million to $7.1 million.   

Another important “county amendment” to SB 2015 was the inclusion of an additional $5 million in snow removal grant funds for county, township, city and tribal governments, to be administered with the earlier passage of SB 2183 through DES.  These funds will allow reimbursement up to 60% of eligible snow removal costs, as opposed to the 50% in SB 2183.

The OMB budget also included an appropriation and a requirement to contract for a performance audit of the State Auditor’s office.  This comes in response to the concerns raised largely by political subdivisions due to unanticipated audit costs from the State Auditor’s office.   

A number of amendments to the OMB budget addressed the closure of the NDPERS Main Defined Benefit plan to new employees.  Several provisions address the statutory changes and state costs associated with an 1% employer and 1% employee contribution increase, and a “fail-safe” provision was added to allow the NDPERS Board to delay plan closure by a year if the newly created Defined Contribution plan for new governmental employees is not operational by the end of this year.

The largest funding bill of state government, SB 2012 –the Dept. of Health and Human Services, was finalized with a total appropriation of $5.4 Billion dollars, of which just short of $2 Billion is state funds. This is an overall 19% increase. The DHHS budget is incredibly complex and its growth is driven largely by provider reimbursement increase to long-term care facilities, doctors, hospitals, treatment facilities and programs, child care facilities, and providers of services to the developmentally disabled.  Notably the budget also includes $12.5 million to begin the process of building a new state hospital in Jamestown – a project discussed by legislators for decades, and fairly sizeable increases for behavioral health.  Child care funding support as a workforce issue was much discussed in this budget, but that issue was largely addressed in a delayed stand-alone bill, HB 1540.

As in the last two biennia, the funding for 100% of the direct costs of Human Service Zones and approximately 25% of the county’s indirect costs are funded through this budget.  That portion of the budget grew about 4% overall, ending up at $197.7 million and just shy of the $200 million in the oil tax “bucket” created for this purpose.   As with all state budgets, employee salary levels were increased 6% for the first year of the biennium and 4% for the second year.  As close to 90% of the Zone appropriation is for staff cost, most of the growth is directly related to those inflators, as well as some funding for anticipated increases in health insurance premiums.  One of the last issues to be decided by the SB 2012 conference committee was “equity funding” for zone employees.  This was discussed last session and a study was commissioned to examine the issue over the interim. Inequities were identified within and among zones as well as with the state DHHS employees.  Although the original executive budget had $10 million for making equity adjustments of the State employees, no money was recommended to address the zone employees.  The study suggested a need of $3.75 million to address zone salary disparities, and another $8.5 million to address the differences in employee contributions to health insurance.  An attempt to resolve this issue by moving all zone employees from host county employment to state employment was unsuccessful, but this led to resistance to fully addressing zone equity.  Ultimately the bill included $3.75 million for salary adjustments beyond the 6%/4% increases, but nothing for the health insurance premium differentials.

One policy section of SB 2012 was added requiring each zone board include “at least one member of the legislative assembly.” This was added at the request of a legislator that sits on a zone board and feels it is crucial to understanding human service delivery. This bill is effective July 1, 2023, but it is unclear how quickly this is to be implemented within current appointment terms. 

SB 2012 also includes funding for a new initiative for local law enforcement to assist individuals experiencing a mental health crisis. $2.65 million will go towards law enforcement telehealth program that will benefit county Sheriff’s and jail facilities. The concept is to outfit patrol vehicles with tablets that can be used to connect individuals with mental health professionals. The telehealth initiative hopes to address a gap identified in the state for mental health treatment options in the state. Once implemented, this project could be an alternative to bringing an individual to a hospital or jail. The program has been piloted in South Dakota with success.

Other action worth updating since our last blog post…

The NDSU Research and Extension funding bill (HB 1020) contains six different budgets, two of which are significant to counties.   These two budgets support the Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute (UGPTI) and the County Extension system. 

UGPTI was funded at the same level as the current biennium with the salary and benefit increases agreed upon for all of state government.  This budget will allow the continuation of the local roads study and continued support for the GRIT database.  Additionally, $408,000 was added for a new freight and logistics study. 

County Extension was also funded at its current level with compensation increases, while adding one additional soybean pathologist and a swine specialist.  $80,000 in additionally operating funds for 4H was also included.

The House ended up killing a bill that attempted to set minimum sentences for gun crimes and offenses against officers. HB 2017 was introduced by Attorney General Drew Wrigley but was changed several times throughout the session. The bill went to conference committee and met resistance in the House. It was sent back to conference committee with new House members appointed, but conferee’s were unwilling to re-work the bill. The conference committee stripped the bill of a majority of the language with only a study of firearm possession remaining. The House then killed the bill.

Your NDACo Legislative Team will be working on a legislative summary of the session. And as a reminder, NDACo will be hosting a Legislative Wrap Up Webinar Monday, May 8th from 10-12 p.m. Register here: https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/1651268982980163931

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