WDAY: The News Leader

Published November 05, 2011, 03:47 PM

North Dakota Session to Tackle Flood Aid, Health Insurance

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — This week's special session of the North Dakota Legislature was scheduled for redistricting, an intensely political task that defines the areas state lawmakers will represent for the next decade. Yet the debate may pass almost unnoticed.

By: DALE WETZEL, Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — This week's special session of the North Dakota Legislature was scheduled for redistricting, an intensely political task that defines the areas state lawmakers will represent for the next decade. Yet the debate may pass almost unnoticed.

Instead, lawmakers will be scrutinizing whether to allow the University of North Dakota to retire its Fighting Sioux nickname, along with proposals to offer aid to flood victims and establish a new health insurance marketplace, which will eventually be financed by taxes on consumers' health policies.

They hope to finish it all on Friday, Veterans' Day, which is a state holiday.

"I'm a realist. I don't think we're going to get done any too soon. If we get done Friday, I'll be very pleased," said Sen. Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, the Senate's majority leader.

The session opens at 9 a.m. Monday, followed shortly by an address by Gov. Jack Dalrymple, in which he intends to outline his recommendations for the disaster aid legislation.

In an Associated Press interview Friday, Dalrymple said the measure will include an individual aid program to help North Dakotans rebuild flood-damaged homes and grants to local governments for flood repairs.

He is proposing a state tax credit for low-income housing, a Bank of North Dakota housing aid program and an increase in the $100 million state grant fund to help local governments in western North Dakota deal with the impact of oil exploration.

Dalrymple intends to ask legislators to hire more highway patrolmen to work in western North Dakota, which is choked with truck traffic from the region's prolific oil development.

The governor declined to say how many new highway patrolmen he would request, or provide cost estimates for the programs. He said the final legislation was still being drafted.

Separately, lawmakers will handle a package of health care bills aimed at implementing parts of the new federal health care law that was approved by Congress last year.

They would establish North Dakota's own state-run health benefit exchange, as well as broadening eligibility for Medicaid, a state and federal insurance program for the poor, and a children's health insurance initiative that extends coverage to children of lower-income families.

The health exchange, which federal law requires states to have by January 2014, will be designed to offer health insurance plans to individuals and small businesses that can be more easily compared by price and benefit levels.

States may elect to allow the federal government run their exchanges, or set up their own. A handful have already done so, including Massachusetts, Utah, Oregon, Washington and West Virginia.

One of the special legislative session's key questions is whether majority Republicans, who oppose the Obama-backed program, can stomach establishing a state-run exchange, even though the alternative is turning administration over to the federal government.

North Dakota's budget office estimates a state-run exchange will require hiring 22 new state employees and spending at least $10 million every two years on operating expenses.

Dalrymple noted that while the Legislature debates establishing a health exchange, the state of North Dakota is among those challenging the federal health care law itself in court, arguing that it is unconstitutional.

"It's all in this context, that we're suing the federal government with the position that they can't require people to buy health insurance," Dalrymple said.

The Fighting Sioux measure would repeal a bill, which the Legislature approved only eight months ago, that requires the University of North Dakota to keep its athletics nickname and a logo that depicts the profile of an American Indian warrior.

UND wants to discard the nickname and logo to resolve a dispute with the NCAA, which considers them offensive. A group of nickname supporters on the Spirit Lake Sioux Indian reservation are suing the NCAA in federal court, claiming the organization's pressure on UND violates tribal members' rights.

And then there's redistricting, the foremost reason the special session is being held. The proposed new political map keeps the Legislature's existing number of 47 districts, each of which is represented by two House members and a senator.

It eliminates rural districts in northeastern and central North Dakota, and creates new districts in Fargo and Bismarck, a move made necessary by population shifts in North Dakota during the last decade.

Sen. Raymon Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, who was chairman of a legislative committee that drew the proposed map, said there was "a great deal of agreement across political lines" on most of the districts, although changes did prompt some grousing.

"The bottom line is ... as far as redistricting is concerned, pain is inevitable," Holmberg said. "The suffering is what's optional."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.