BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — The North Dakota Legislature is slated to tackle some of the weightiest issues of the session as lawmakers enter their first full week after crossover. Among the highlights: Medicaid, oil taxes and the ongoing debate over selling bottle rockets in the state.
The measures being weighed have already passed either the Senate or the House. Now, senators are reviewing bills that were approved by the House as the House mulls Senate measures.
North Dakota's House reluctantly voted late last month to expand Medicaid to cover more uninsured residents of the state. Several members of the Republican-led chamber criticized the federal Affordable Care Act championed by President Barack Obama, including the plan to expand Medicaid. In the end, enough House Republicans endorsed the measure, saying it behooved the state to accept it because of the potential for North Dakota residents to shoulder more costs without it.
The measure will be a much tougher sell to Senate Republicans, who have two-thirds control of the chamber.
North Dakota's Medicaid program now covers about 65,000 people a month. If the state expands eligibility, an additional 20,000 people — mostly adults without children — would be added to the program. Under the health care law, the federal government would cover the full cost of expanding Medicaid through 2016, with the state's contribution rising in stages to 10 percent.
Abortion-rights attorneys will be watching closely actions taken by both chambers this week on a package of measures aimed at strengthening North Dakota's already strict abortion laws.
Senators will consider a bill that passed the House that would ban doctors from performing an abortion if a fetal heartbeat is detected, which can occur as early as six weeks into pregnancy.
That measure is a direct challenge the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion up until viability, usually at 22 to 24 weeks.
Senators also will review a House a bill that would prevent women from having abortions based on gender selection or a genetic defect like Down syndrome.
Lawmakers in the House will mull anti-abortion bills that have passed the Senate, including a measure that would require a doctor who performs abortions to have hospital-admitting privileges — a move that opponents say is designed to close the state's sole abortion clinic in Fargo.
Lawmakers have shunned critics' attempts to set aside money for lawsuits that most certainly will follow if the measures become law.
OIL TAX RESTRUCTURING
An oil tax restructuring measure that drew heated debate in the Senate is heading to the House this week for review.
The measure is aimed at closing loopholes enjoyed by oil companies in exchange for lower tax rates in North Dakota.
Sen. Dwight Cook, R-Mandan, says his bill is "a win for the state of North Dakota and a win for the oil industry."
Sen. Connie Triplett, D-Grand Forks, has called the measure "the biggest giveaway in the state's history."
Cook's proposal would cut the exemption for so-called stripper wells that the state Tax Department says is costing North Dakota about $50 million in revenue each year.
Stripper wells are exempt from the state's 6.5 percent extraction tax, but not a 5 percent production tax. Attempts to close the loophole have failed in the past three legislative sessions.
The measure would charge oil companies an effective tax rate of 9.5 percent on wells drilled after 2017 instead of the 11.5 percent tax rate they're charged now.
Democrats have called the measure radical and reckless, saying it would cost the state more than $595 million in lost revenue in the first five years. Republicans say the tax cut will ensure that companies remaining drilling in North Dakota.
BOTTLE ROCKET BAN
The North Dakota Senate could endorse a House measure to lift a four-year-old ban on selling bottle rockets in the state.
The issue of bottle rockets has turned into a biennial debate by the state Legislature.
The House voted to lift the ban earlier this session. The Senate is mulling the measure this week.
Eye doctors helped the Legislature see the need to ban bottle rocket sales in 2009, saying the fireworks cause eye injuries. An effort to overturn the ban failed in 2011.
The current law still allows people to possess and shoot off bottle rockets, but businesses in North Dakota can't sell them.
Statehouse watchers say that constitutional issues likely will be raised during the debate over the skyrockets this session — or at the very least, a copy of the Constitution will be pulled from a jacket pocket as the measure is mulled.
BAREFOOT REPORTERS IN TUBE TOPS?
In the Capitol pressroom, reporters have been informed for the second time this session that tank tops and tube tops will not be tolerated "without additional covering."
The rules issued by the North Dakota Legislature's Republican majority leaders and sergeants-at-arms also forbids reporters from going barefoot or intentionally displaying undergarments or bare midriffs.
Granted, most reporters aren't fashion plates but even the longest-tenured, grizzled journalists covering the Capitol can't recall such violations.
"Policies Governing Media In The Chamber" is posted prominently in the Capitol media room.
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