BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Many of North Dakota's newest legislators are already readying an assortment of proposals, which would exempt clothing from the state sales tax, boost college student tuition aid and help finance compressed natural gas fueling stations.
The North Dakota Legislature is wrapping up a three-day organizational session Wednesday, during which lawmakers receive committee assignments, desks, parking spaces and briefings on issues. Gov. Jack Dalrymple is presenting lawmakers with his spending recommendations for the state's 2013-15 budget Wednesday.
When the Legislature begins its regular business session next month, 25 of its 147 members will be new. Republicans have 10 new House members and five senators, while Democrats have seven new House members and three senators. Republicans hold two-thirds majorities in both houses of the Legislature.
Sen. George B. Sinner, D-Fargo, promised during his campaign to push an exemption for clothing from North Dakota's 5 percent sales tax, an idea that lawmakers have rejected in the last two sessions. Local governments, most of which collect sales taxes of their own, have opposed the idea.
Sinner believes the exemption is gaining support. Minnesota already exempts clothing from its state sales tax, and merchants on the North Dakota side of the Red River are put at a disadvantage, Sinner said.
Grand Forks' Scheels sporting goods store, for example, must collect sales tax on clothing, while Cabela's, a competing business in East Grand Forks, Minn., does not, he said.
"I think it's a competition issue in Fargo and some of the other border communities ... but it is also a tax break that affects everybody," Sinner said. "We all need our clothes. Everybody has to have some ... and it's an immediate impact on families."
Rep. Dwight Kiefert, R-Valley City, said he is considering a bill that would provide state support to establish compressed natural gas fueling stations in North Dakota's larger cities. At present, there are only two — Montana-Dakota Utilities Co. installations in Bismarck and Dickinson, which company spokesman Mark Hanson said are seldom used.
Vast amounts of natural gas, which is a byproduct of oil production in western North Dakota's oil country, is being burned off and wasted because of slower development of pipeline networks to bring the fuel to processing plants.
Natural gas prices have also declined nationwide as production ramps up, Kiefert said, making the fuel an attractive alternative for passenger cars and trucks, as well as city buses, garbage trucks and other vehicles that are normally driven within a limited area. It costs about $2 to buy compressed natural gas that would supply the same energy as a gallon of gasoline.
"That's something we could be putting into our vehicles, but the problem is, we don't have the refueling stations," he said. "They're not just developed yet, but once they're developed, there's a lot of vehicles that could be burning it."
Setting up a station can cost $500,000 or more, Kiefert said. "We could probably speed the process (of setting up a fueling network) by about five years," he said. "They are kind of spendy to put in."
Sen. Tom Campbell, R-Grafton, said he was considering ideas that would help ease North Dakota's labor shortage. Any proposal is still a few weeks away, he said Tuesday. The state's unemployment ranks among the nation's lowest, and competition for workers has forced up wages.
"We can do everything we want here with oil or ag or whatever, and if you don't have any employees, we're spinning our wheels," Campbell said.
Sinner and freshman Sen. Tyler Axness, D-West Fargo, said they also would advocate proposals to raise state tuition aid expenditures for low-income college students, establish a scholarship endowment fund and direct the state-owned Bank of North Dakota to provide lower interest rates for student loans.
"There needs to be a lot more emphasis on the state level on making sure college is affordable," Axness said Tuesday.