A Look at 2003 Session
by Christopher Dodson,
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
May 2003

The North Dakota legislative session and the subsequent special session have finished. From a Catholic perspective, how did this session fare? How does it compare to the legislative actions in other states this year?

These are not easy questions to answer. If we count “wins and losses” for bills followed by the North Dakota Catholic Conference this year, this was a good session. Some very important items, like increased funding for the corporate guardianship program run by Catholic Family Services, conscience protection for adoption agencies, and a ban on human cloning were all passed.

A true Catholic perspective, however, asks not about wins and losses, but about whether the life and dignity of the human person, the common good, and justice were advanced or diminished. These are long term and multifaceted concerns that cannot be measured by the success or failure of a single bill. Certainly, the legislature’s reduction in funding for human service programs and failure to significantly address the problems of out-migration give cause for concern. On the other hand, the funding cuts are unlikely to be as severe -- in both dollar and human terms -- as they are in other states.

Despite the press reports of partisan battles and party in-fighting, and even with a very limited amount of funds to appropriate, the mood and morale around the legislature seemed better than in some of the last sessions. Bills moved quickly, but -- with a few exceptions -- not so fast as to avoid significant public input. The overall tone of discourse among legislators and lobbyists seemed better. For the most part, North Dakota legislators are well-meaning, courteous, professional, and very hard-working. No matter what their political party, religion, or philosophy, they deserve our respect and appreciation.

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Now that the session is over, observers are putting together “best and worst” lists. Here is a list admittedly formed by my own observations and the views of the North Dakota Catholic Conference.

Best bill: SB 2188 -- ensuring conscience protection for adoption agencies; HB 1424 - ban on human cloning.

Worse bill introduced: There were too many to name here. All, thankfully, were defeated.

Most long overdue: Corporate guardianship funding increase. This essential program administered by Catholic Family Service had not received a funding increase since 1995. The legislature, going against the Governor’s recommended budget, took care of that.

Biggest disappointment: SB 2364 -- Children's health insurance for unborn. The Bush administration revised rules for the state children’s health insurance program so states could include unborn children in the program. Various federal, state, and insurance industry policies, however, made it unworkable. Supporters eventually withdrew and hope to fix the problems before the next session.

Most embarrassing law that needs repeal: Welfare Family Caps. This policy has failed to reduce out-of-wedlock pregnancies, implicitly encourages abortion and contraception, is discriminatory, and, contrary to good moral theology, embraces an illicit means to accomplish a desired good. HB 1460 would have repealed the law, but failed in the House.

Most hated bill that passed: HB 1489 -- New Teacher Qualifications. This bill implements the new teacher requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. No one seemed to like it, but it passed anyway.
Darned if you do, darned if you don’t bill: HB 1467 -- Prohibit state agencies from receiving federal family planning funds. If state agencies could not accept funds, the money would go to private, less accountable organizations. It failed.

Most threatening to Catholic entities and employers: HB 1247 -- Would have mandated insurance coverage of contraception and “emergency contraception.” It failed.

I’ll have more “bests” and “worsts” in next month’s column.