Legislative Session Wrap-Up
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
The North Dakota Legislative Assembly adjourned April 28 with only one bill unresolved. Although leaving a bill unfinished is unusual, if not unprecedented, voters should keep in mind that it is common in many other states and, unlike every other state legislature, the North Dakota legislature holds hearings on and advances every bill introduced.
Legislators introduced 938 bills and resolutions. The North Dakota Catholic Conference followed 145 of them. Only a handful of them became what most people would call “newsworthy.” Why do we follow so many bills? To begin with, consider all the institutions and missions in which the church engages. The church has schools, parishes, cemeteries, a university, Catholic Charities of North Dakota, and other charitable programs. Health care is provided through Catholic hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living centers, and more. Each session many bills are introduced that could impact the operation of any of these programs and entities. Very often the proposed legislation does not affect the work of these ministries. Until final passage, however, a bill can change and the conference tries to monitor all the bills throughout the process.
In addition, the church is committed to ensuring that the poor, marginalized, sick, and suffering are treated with respect and dignity. For this reason, the conference follows many bills involving the provision of human services such as abortion alternatives, adoption, medical assistance, and treatment for persons with mental illness. About one-half of all the bills followed by the conference fall within this category. These bills may not make headlines and, to be honest, can sometimes be boring. The church, however, would not be the church if it turned away from legislation that affected the least among us.
Here are some of the highlights of the last legislative session.
Human Trafficking Addressed
The legislature passed a set of bills to address the serious problem of human trafficking in North Dakota. Three bills supported by the conference were especially important. SB 2107 was the main bill. It revises and strengthens the criminal laws on human trafficking, ensures that victims of trafficking are eligible for services without regard to their immigration status, and prevents tax money for victims services from being used to refer for or counsel in favor of abortions. SB 2199 provides much needed funding for victim services. SB 2219 establishes a statewide task force to address human trafficking.
An additional bill, proposed by the North Dakota Catholic Conference, provides an enhanced criminal penalty for human traffickers who have forced or coerced a victim to have an abortion.
School Choice Success and Defeat
The legislature passed two bills that further parental choice in education. HB 1462 provides tax credits for contributions to private education institutions. These contributions can be used for scholarships at nonpublic schools. SB 2151 provides some funding to low income parents to voluntarily choose an early childhood education program for their child, including a program at a nonpublic school.
The state Senate, however, narrowly defeated (22 - 24) a proposed income tax deduction to help low and middle income parents cover the cost of tuition and books at a nonpublic school. The House had passed the legislation 69 -24, making HB 1254 the first school choice tax deduction bill to ever pass one of the chambers.
Religious Rights Protected
The North Dakota Catholic Conference successfully lobbied for amendments to bills that would have interfered with the right of churches to set their own policies on firearms and the right of private religious colleges to establish their own student disciplinary policies.
Although it was one aspect of the bill that did not get much attention in the press, SB 2279, the defeated sexual orientation non-discrimination bill, could have scaled-back religious protections on matters that did not even involve sexual orientation. For more on SB 2279, see last month’s column.
Sexual Assault Nurses Funded
The conference supported SB 2284, which provides much needed funding for sexual assault nurses to conduct forensic exams for victims of sexual assault. These specially trained nurses are scarce in some areas of the state. Our Catholic hospitals are among those that need access to these services.
Behavioral Health and Substance Abuse Services Left Wanting
When it comes to services for behavioral health and substance abuse, North Dakota is in a state of crisis. In response, legislators proposed several bills that only began to address the problems. Unfortunately, many of the bills that required funding were defeated or had the funding significantly reduced. This is a problem that will not go away and must be addressed next session.
The only bill opposed by the conference that passed was SB 2351, which opens up some agriculture operations to ownership by outside investors. Opponents of the legislation have launched a referral effort. The bishops support this effort.