Looming Issues for Next Session
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director
North Dakota Catholic Conference

August 2016

The next legislative session is, depending on how you look at it, “only” or “still” five months away. Either way, the session is approaching and now is a good time to recognize some looming issues for the next session.

The Budget

The state budget is already the dominant issue. The legislature just had a special session to address declining revenues, but the real work remains for the regular session.

On the one hand, North Dakota is, by some standards, doing well financially. Unemployment is low and the state is funding some very real needs in infrastructure and education — though still not parental choice. On the other hand, oil revenues are very low and agriculture commodity prices are taking a hit. This means that the state is not expected to bring in as much revenue as previous years, which leads to new and difficult challenges with spending and collecting revenue.

Expect heated debates about the budget to dominate the session from Day 1 to sine die.

Human Service Needs

In February Governor ordered a set of across the board cuts for all state agencies. These cuts hit the provision of human services especially hard. For one thing, despite the fact that Department of Human Services targeted “new” programs for elimination, the fact remains that these were still needed programs and they were identified as such by the legislature. Secondly, the truly needy are most impacted and are in less of a position than most of us to adjust the reduction or elimination of services. Thirdly, some of those reductions, especially in the area of long-term care, resulted in additional losses in federal matching funds.

The Department of Human Services was spared in the second round of reductions that occurred in August, but it will likely have to present a reduced budget for the next biennium. Just as the Year of Mercy closes, concerned citizens will have to work to make sure that our most vulnerable citizens are not left behind.

Behavioral Health and Substance Abuse

Just about every observer agrees that the state is in a crisis when it comes to behavioral health and substance abuse. The situation was already bad before the opioid and fentanyl epidemic hit the state. Nevertheless, while most would agree that something needs to be done, not everyone agrees on what should be done or whether there is enough funding and will to get it done.

The Department of Human Services is already in the process of reforming its delivery system through the Human Service Centers and the State Hospital. In the meantime, an interim legislative committee has studied the matter and is preparing draft legislation for the next session. Some of the proposals will require state funding. There will exist tremendous pressure to not devote new funding to mental health and substance abuse services in light of the state’s budget problems. Not acting, however, could put even more of our neighbors at risk and cost us more money in the long run through incarceration.

Incarceration Reform

Addressing our incarceration numbers is linked to addressing our behavioral health needs. North Dakota locks up too many of its non-violent citizens for low-level drug-related crimes. The situation is financially unsustainable and short-sighted as a policy matter. Recommendations to lower penalties for non-violent offenses and offer alternatives to incarceration have met with some resistance. Meanwhile, it is certain that any serious effort to address our skyrocketing incarceration rates must work in tandem with efforts to provide better and more extensive mental health and substance abuse treatment.

Medicaid Expansion

Over 19,000 North Dakotans have medical coverage as a result of Medicaid expansion passed by the legislature in 2013. Passage of the legislation, which the North Dakota Catholic Conference and the state’s Catholic health care facilities supported, was difficult. To appease some concerns, the legislation was given a “sunset” of July 31, 2017. This means that the legislature must renew the program during the next legislative session or thousands of North Dakotans will lose or lack health care coverage they otherwise would have. The families impacted usually earn too much to qualify for traditional Medicaid but don’t earn enough to receive subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.

There is a peek at some of the issues facing the next Legislative Assembly, and space does not allow me to write about the refugee program, revision of the state’s marriage laws, and protecting legislation to help the unborn and their mothers. Stay tuned to the conference’s Facebook page and be sure to ask your candidates about these issues.