WDAZ: Your Home Team

Published March 30, 2011, 02:38 PM

ND House Votes to Dump Board of Higher Ed

North Dakota's House on Wednesday approved four of 11 proposed state constitutional amendments, supporting changes aimed at abolishing the state Board of Higher Education and making it easier for lawmakers to get state government jobs.

By: Dale Wetzel, Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota's House on Wednesday approved four of 11 proposed state constitutional amendments, supporting changes aimed at abolishing the state Board of Higher Education and making it easier for lawmakers to get state government jobs.

Lawmakers also approved an amendment to limit the growth of a state school aid reserve fund, and a fourth proposal that requires executive branch officials to take an oath of office. They already do, but the state constitution does not require it; only lawmakers and judges must take an oath, said Rep. Tom Conklin, D-Douglas.

House members rejected seven amendments, including proposals for a 60 percent legislative approval requirement for some tax increases, an increase in the Legislature's maximum term from 80 to 100 days every two years, and a declaration that North Dakotans cannot be required to buy health insurance.

The insurance amendment, which prompted a heated debate on the House floor Wednesday, was aimed at federal health overhaul legislation that requires everyone to have health coverage. North Dakota is one of several states challenging the mandate in federal court.

Critics say the amendment's would not shield anyone from a requirement to carry health insurance if the federal law is upheld, because the U.S. and North Dakota constitutions say federal law trumps state restrictions.

"Passing this legislation might be good politics for a few of you, but it's lousy public policy for the rest of us, and the people of our state," said Rep. Bill Devlin, R-Finley.

The amendment's sponsor, Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Fargo, read from the U.S. Constitution in arguing that the insurance mandate represented an overreach of federal power.

"You show me where in this Constitution it says we have to buy health insurance," Kasper said. "To make insinuations that we're working on something that is unconstitutional flies in the face of what the Constitution says itself."

Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, the House's majority leader, is pushing the amendment to eliminate the higher education board, which he wants to replace with a state Department of Education and an 11-member advisory board. The education agency's director and the advisory panel's members would be chosen by the governor, with the board members also vetted by legislative leaders. The education department would be responsible for all North Dakota public education, from preschool through college.

"This is not about micromanaging," he said, adding that his approach would streamline North Dakota's public education system. "This is about eliminating bureaucracy."

The current Board of Higher Education is appointed by the governor but operates independently.

Rep. Lonny Winrich, D-Grand Forks, said Carlson's proposed overhaul would make the state higher education system more vulnerable to political interference.

"We're not going to improve K-12 education by upsetting higher education," Winrich said.

The proposed amendment that would make it easier for lawmakers to land state government appointments was approved 87-5 and now goes to the state Senate. Lawmakers currently are barred from taking state appointments if the job's pay increased during their term of office. The proposal says a legislator could be considered if a pay raise for the position did not go beyond a general increase provided for state workers.

The constitution's existing language was written "at a time when compensation for public officials was handled in a much different way than it is today," Winrich said. "The (pay) increases were fewer and farther between."

In recent years, the constitutional provision has blocked the governor from considering legislators for openings for tax commissioner, insurance commissioner, Supreme Court justice and lieutenant governor.

The tax amendment, which would have required 60 percent approval in the Legislature to raise sales, income and motor vehicle excise taxes, was promoted by Rep. Wes Belter, R-Fargo, the chairman of the North Dakota House's Finance and Taxation Committee, as a way of giving lawmakers less money to spend.

"We generally spend everything that is available, and in order to stop that, we have to make it more difficult to control the revenues," Belter said.

Rep. Jon Nelson, R-Rugby, said the Legislature has hardly been eager to increase taxes, adding that the three taxes targeted by the amendment have not risen since he was first elected to the House in 1996.

"We've gone through some sessions where we had very little money, and came in with some very tough decisions to be made. But we always made those decisions, and we made them without raising taxes," Nelson said. "I don't see why we are afraid of ourselves."

Rep. Lawrence Klemin, R-Bismarck, said the 60 percent threshold would give too much power to a minority faction of the Legislature.

"I'm not in favor of raising taxes. I'm not sure that I've ever voted (in favor of) a tax increase. But I am not in favor of minority rule," Klemin said. "That's just not the way a democracy works."