Damage control and poker… otherwise known as Conference Committees in the third leg of the legislative session. A fun-filled time where three appointed Senate and three House members convene to duke out and negotiate changes made to a particular bill. It’s not unusual for further amendments to be crafted in the wee hours of a night to further change a bill from its origins – leaving a person with the sense of chasing the proverbial tail! What starts out as one thing can change vastly in the blink of an eye – games afoot!
Damage control starts first thing in the day as the emails roll in – you try to determine which bill on the tracking list has changed – and how. Once identified, it’s off for a round of emails or phone calls to get the “real world” perspective to things. Among others, our very own Traill County Auditor, Becca Braaten, is on speed dial and is positively indispensable in getting a quick pulse on a situation. It just makes sense to reach out to the network of experts we have available, as there is just no way one person can understand or interpret every line of information moving through here. This methodology has been invaluable in laying sound debate or launching a campaign to affect a vote – and I’m so very grateful for all the willing help along the way!
Poker comes in the form of the Conference Committee itself. Often the originating chamber has a greater sense of ownership in a bill and will immediately work to regain control of their position. Who blinks first, who plays which card – and when – becomes quite fascinating to watch play out. In this arena, as the freshman and the minority, I prefer to come prepared with my homework, but speak only if it is pertinent and leave any dissention on my part to an appropriate opening. This is the time that relationships with the majority counterparts to become indispensable. Not that we’ve agreed all along! On the contrary, we’ve had some ferocious disagreements at various points in the session. But, what has been important is to keep a professional decorum, and to agree to disagree.
One such bill was HB 1112 which was originally a pretty benign piece of legislation that dealt with Job Service of North Dakota. Low and behold, after the ND Supreme Court decision deeming that locked-out employees are entitled to unemployment compensation, a sweet little amendment was introduced into the bill that would now prohibit any future lock-out employees of being eligible for unemployment benefits. The one, very fundamental, problem with this language that was fought out in committee and both chamber floors…. Current statute has no definition of the term lock-out, so by all accounts employers will now have the ability to define for themselves what this means for them. How this reconciles with current labor laws – both federal and state – is uncertain and remains to be seen, but the amendment and bill passed both chambers and is now on its way to the Governor’s office.
Another that is still playing out is HB 1319, which is the K-12 Education budget. The Governor’s budget from the beginning of the year had incorporated increased state funding to provide significant property tax relief to local tax payers. Good idea! Never content to leave a good thing alone, there has been an ongoing legislative battle as to the structure of this funding formula – with a push to base funding to pre-existing student numbers. Those schools with stable or growing numbers will find greater funding. Those schools with low, declining – or worse yet unstable – numbers will find themselves in a quandary from year to year. For any of us in the rural areas, this premise is deeply concerning as we fight to make sure our small school districts don’t find themselves in a poorly funded situation one day. Our families and students deserve better than this. It’s a matter of priorities.
There are many more bills to write on… I’m calling them the Good, the Bad and the Ugly because there are a good number that fit in each category! Much to do… much to say!
Til next week – enjoy the warmer days & hoping the waters stay low!
Rep. Gail Mooney
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