The final days of a legislative session… Uffda. It’s hard to express what those days are like as heavy-hitting policy meets the chopping block of Appropriations and political leaders volley for their respective positions. It feels very much like a 3-D version of chess, where things are in play on a variety of levels in a variety of ways. Where you know you will loose your pawns as you strategize to save the king. One of my favorite senators refers to it as “sausage making” – which is not a bad analogy.
There were several bills I was dogging in the last days. Two were related to traumatic brain injury and were bills I’d worked nearly a year on with members of the other political leanings. They are proof that truly bi-partisan policy can be developed when the common good of the people is the priority. Both bills, HB 1256 and HB 1046, ultimately had a full cadre of representatives and senators rallying in unwavering support to get them passed with appropriate funding and policy in place – and in the end, they passed both chambers almost unanimously.
HB 1256 is a bill that provides for the expansion of the definition of traumatic brain injury to simply “brain injury.” As with most new things, the unknowns are fearful, so certain exclusions were included (such as stroke), but the fact that we were able to successfully make the statutory change to a more generalized definition is a critical step to ensuring that a select group of people who suffer from a brain injury are able to receive services as they transition and progress in their new lives. While this may seem like a common-sense move, making this change was anything but simple – and required the small army of supporters for successful passage.
HB 1046 was the money bill for brain injury. Originally, it included nearly $2 million in funding. In the end, we were able to move forward with $375,000 for a new Return to Work Program and $50,000 to complete an existing Resource Facilitation Program currently administered through the UND Center for Rural Health.
To be sure – disappointments abound at not being able to fully fund programs as originally hoped, but the fact that we were able to establish direct services for return to work was a paramount goal and will make a profound difference in a number of people’s lives in this next biennium. Since brain injuries affect people in a myriad of ways, and can have life-long consequences, it’s essential for individuals to receive necessary supports in returning to a functional life that may include productive work. By establishing this program now, providers can begin to collect necessary data and evidence to report back for the 2017 session, at which time we can adjust accordingly. HB 1046 and 1256 were huge wins for the people and families who are re-establishing their lives after a brain injury, and I’m very proud of all the legislators, advocates and individuals who worked tirelessly to bring this to a successful conclusion. It truly does take a village!
One of the other bills that ping-ponged through the halls of the Capitol in the final days was SB 2206 – the social services funding bill. This bill was eight years in the making – had bipartisan legislative support, as well as local support through county commissions and social services. It represents true property tax relief through reformed funding and was the leading product from the Governor’s Property Tax Tax Force of the last legislative interim. In its original form it included $23 million in funding for this biennium, and a comprehensive Social Services Commission to consider the implications of a fully state funded social services program in North Dakota – a move that would conservatively cost over $110 million and would no doubt affect the local administration of services in the 53 counties.
The idea of state-funded social services makes sense on a number of levels, not the least of which – it is entirely burdensome for local taxpayers to be expected to pay for a service over which they have little control and may never require for themselves. Human Services as a function, can and should be a state-funded service, and I agree with this premise. However, where the state giveth, the state also taketh away. In any funding or administrative take-over of social services, it is paramount that the balance between money and locally available services be met. As a primarily rural state we cannot sacrifice our locally driven services for the sake of funding. We simply do not have the private-sector services to pick up gaps.
SB 2206 was amended through House Appropriations to change the Social Services Interim Commission to the Taxation Committee – a change that would have flipped the priority of services first, funding second – to the issue of taxation and funding as the main priority. For me, this was wholly unacceptable. Traill County Social Services Director, Kim Jacobson, went far above the call of duty to advocate with the North Dakota Association of Counties as we worked to get this piece of the bill reinstated. There were numerous revisions, amendments and meetings. The governor sat with many of us through many heated conference committees, as we engaged in perhaps the biggest chess match of the session. Don Mueller (Cummings), valiantly and feverishly worked to keep up with the meeting minutes and amendments – only to find he’d be starting all over again in a matter of hours. Frustrations reached pinnacle heights as House leaders refused to budge from their stand on who would lead the way for the future of county social services through this next biennium process.
In the end, SB 2206 was finally accepted by both the House and Senate with a compromise for a legislative study group to include finance, human services, and local interests as selected by Legislative Management. I was able to go along with this structure on the basis that the leaders of the senate are firmly supportive of the comprehensive approach to funding and services – and the fact that Senator Ray Holmberg was elected as Legislative Chair for this next biennium. Senator Holmberg, a proud Cummings native, has been very supportive of human services issues in the past and I feel comfortable entrusting his leadership to this very important topic.
Protect the king… the people. In the end, that’s what the whole thing comes down to. In the final days we plodded through approximately 110 bills all related to services and outcomes the people of our great state need and expect. Some ended well – some not so well.
One was left incomplete. The budget for the state employees benefits is left in limbo as the House and Senate leaders found themselves at an impasse and unable to agree on whether legislators can or should impose themselves in to the inner workings of the ND PERS board. To be continued…
Fast and furious – the 2015 legislative session has officially drawn to a close. I’m looking forward to diving into the interim committee work for the 2017 session and am hopeful of continuing the work with Human Services and Government Services committees. I like the continuum of the work as it provides greater understanding with productive outcomes.
Till the next report – feel free to contact me with any issues, concerns, or questions. It’s never too early to get started on the next great legislative works and we’re much stronger when we’re working together!
Representative, District 20