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North Dakota

Senate fails to hold oil executives responsible for damage

BISMARCK (AP) — The North Dakota Senate has rejected a bill that would have allowed the state to hold liable any corporate officer responsible for oil- and gas-related violations.
The North Dakota Petroleum Council and the Greater North Dakota Chamber had lobbied against the bill, saying it unfairly targeted the oil industry.
The measure rejected Wednesday was requested by State Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms after recent environmental problems in the oil patch. Helms said the state was left with the $1 million bill for cleaning up two properties after companies refused to get involved or abandoned the sites, the Bismarck Tribune reported.
Rep. Jim Roers, of Fargo, was among Republicans who killed the bill.
“We have corporations and partnerships that provide protections for certain individuals, and we felt by passing this bill we would violate those protections, and CEOs, boards of directors could now be held liable for things they would have very little knowledge of what was going on,” he said.
Democratic Sen. Merrill Piepkorn, of Fargo, defended the measure.
“This is an addition that gives the Industrial Commission another tool in their toolbox as they are charged with regulating this industry,” he said.
The bill was defeated on a vote of 7-39.

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North Dakota

Charges filed after boy found outdoors in cold

BISMARCK (AP) — A Mandan couple is charged with child endangerment after their 4-year-old son, dressed in pajamas, was found outdoors in freezing temperatures.
A caller told police the child was visibly shaking when found three-tenths of a mile from his home Saturday morning without shoes and wrapped in a blanket, according to a affidavit. The temperature was 19 degrees, the Bismarck Tribune reported.
Twenty-six-year-old Kasandra Denault and 42-year-old Peter Denault made their initial court appearances Tuesday. Court documents do not list an attorney who could speak on their behalf.
The parents told police the boy jumped out of a bedroom window and ran off and that he had done so before. The window was not secured, the affidavit said.
The two are also facing misdemeanor drug paraphernalia charges.

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North Dakota

Hospitalizations fall as state fixes computer glitch

BISMARCK (AP) — North Dakota health officials on Wednesday reported a dramatic drop in hospitalizations because of the coronavirus, due mostly to finding and fixing a computer glitch.
The state Department of Health said in a release that the adjustment was made after officials resolved a problem with the flow of data in the last week from caseworkers to the state’s reporting system. The result was a drop from 88 hospitalizations to 55.
The last time hospitalizations were that low was late August.
The state’s hospital tracker shows there are 48 staffed intensive care unit beds and 381 staffed inpatient beds available in North Dakota. There are 26 staffed ICU beds that are open at Fargo’s three hospitals.
The update showed 158 new positive COVID-19 tests and one new death in the last day, increasing the totals to 96,222 cases and 1,387 deaths since the start of the pandemic.
Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases in the state has decreased by nearly 34%, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers. One in every 689 people in North Dakota tested positive in the past week.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

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North Dakota

Bill requires some Legacy Fund investments to be in state

BISMARCK (AP) — Some lawmakers want a broader investment policy for North Dakota’s oil tax savings account to help finance projects in the state.
The legislation unveiled Tuesday by Republican lawmakers would tap 20% of the money coming into the Legacy Fund primarily for investments within the state. It’s the latest attempt to use the voter-approved fund as a source of money to help finance expensive infrastructure projects as state’s oil-driven economy declines.
GOP Rep. Mike Nathe, a Bismarck funeral home owner and the bill’s primary sponsor, said only about 1% of the Legacy Fund’s principal is invested in North Dakota at present.
“It’s always great to invest in North Dakota and ourselves and this bill reflects that,” Nathe said in an interview.
Earnings from investments would be used to establish a revolving loan fund. Loans from the fund would have an interests rate of less than 2% percent interest. They would be administered by the state-owned Bank of North Dakota for projects such as flood protection and water systems. Cities, counties and other political subdivisions such as townships would be eligible for some loans.
In 2010, North Dakota voters endorsed a constitutional amendment that requires setting aside 30 percent of state tax revenues on oil and natural gas production in the Legacy Fund, which is now valued at $7.89 billion. It’s expected to earn about $500 million in the next two-year budget cycle.
The most recent deposit into the fund was $29.6 million in December.
The fund’s principal has not been seriously targeted, but lawmakers have spent $455 million from the earnings since 2017, mainly to balance the state budget that has more than doubled in the past decade.
Currently, a two-thirds vote of the North Dakota House and Senate is needed to spend any of the fund’s principal. A state attorney general’s opinion said that voting threshold does not apply to fund’s investments, Nathe said.
“We’re not spending the principal,” Nathe said. “These are investments.”
A decade ago, revenue from the fund was parked mostly in short-term, low-risk and low-return U.S bonds, guaranteed by government agencies. But annual earnings from the fund barely kept pace with inflation.
The State Investment Board now invests the Legacy Fund money in a broad range of assets, including stocks, bonds and real estate, averaging a return of about 6%. The board also supervises the Retirement and Investment Office and oversees state and local government employee pension funds. The board also supervises a separate “rainy day” fund, called the Budget Stabilization Fund, that holds almost $750 million.
“We have investments all over the world and we have virtually nothing here in North Dakota,” Nathe said of the Legacy Fund investments.
North Dakota Insurance Commissioner Jon Godfread, who sits on the 12-member investment board, said the panel, which meets later this month, has not yet discussed the bill.

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North Dakota

Man accused of damaging senator’s office faces federal count

FARGO (AP) — A man accused of using an ax to smash windows at the entrance of Republican North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven’s office in downtown Fargo appeared in federal court Tuesday after prosecutors released a one-page indictment against him.
Thomas Starks is charged with injury or depredation against government property for allegedly causing the damage discovered by staffers on Dec. 21. Starks, of Lisbon, about 75 miles southwest of Fargo, was also charged in state court with criminal mischief.
U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley said his office views the offense as “an assault on democracy” but would not comment on a specific motive.
“It’s the kind of thing that we are assessing whether he had political motivation with regards to this senator and perhaps other officeholders as well,” Wrigley said during a news conference.
Tatum O’Brien, Starks’ lawyer, declined to comment when contacted by The Associated Press.
Police said Starks can be seen in security video walking up some stairs toward the entrance of Hoeven’s office. The video first shows him striking the secure lock system then hitting the windows with the ax.

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North Dakota

ND senator tests positive for coronavirus

BISMARCK (AP) — North Dakota Sen. Terry Wanzek says he has contracted COVID-19.
The 63-year-old Jamestown senator says he took a rapid test Monday and immediately left the Capitol after a test-taker told him about the positive results.
Wanzek says he doesn’t believe he has any close contacts in the Legislature and has been wearing his mask. The senator shared the news remotely during the Senate Appropriations Committee meeting.
Wanzek will quarantine at home for 10 days, KQDJ reported.
North Dakota lawmakers are required to wear face coverings in the House and Senate chambers and other shared spaces. But, some lawmakers regularly eat lunch together in the Capitol cafeteria without masks.
Grand Forks Republican Sen. Ray Holmberg tested positive for COVID-19 following the Legislature’s three-day organizational session in December, which he called a “petri dish” for infection. He has fully recovered.
North Dakota health officials on Tuesday reported 138 new positive COVID-19 tests and two deaths in the last day, increasing the total number of cases to 96.071 and the cumulative fatalities to 1,386 since the start of the pandemic. Hospitalizations were down 3, to 88.
After spending several weeks near the end of 2020 as the worst state in the number of new virus cases relative to population, North Dakota was ranked 50th per capita in data compiled Monday by The COVID Tracking Project.

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North Dakota

ND GOP to scrub ambitious $1.1B bonding proposal

BISMARCK (AP) — A massive $1.1 billion bonding package aimed largely at financing infrastructure projects across North Dakota is being withdrawn and will be replaced by a far less costly proposal, Republican legislative leaders said Monday.
Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, who unveiled the proposal earlier this month at a press conference teeming with lobbyists, told The Associated Press the bill would be scrubbed. A new proposal that would be at least $300 million less will be coming from the House, probably later this week, he said.
“We are going to do a slimmed-down version,” said House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, who declined to give a dollar amount.
The GOP leaders said priority will be given only to water and flood-control projects.
“No matter what we do, there are some people who aren’t going to be happy,” Pollert said.
The original Senate proposal had not been publicly debated, but it has been the subject of several behind-the-scenes intraparty negotiations. Wardner had predicted earlier that the proposal would meet resistance in the more-conservative House.
The proposal would use earnings from the state’s oil tax savings account to pay for the borrowed money. The idea is similar to a $1.25 billion bonding proposal presented by Gov. Doug Burgum last month. But there’s one huge exception: The Republican governor’s proposal includes $700 million in low-interest loans for roads, bridges and other construction projects. The legislative leaders’ plan would offer those funds as grants. Burgum and legislative leaders tout bonding as a way to finance infrastructure projects without having to use other revenue sources or increase taxes.
Both proposals aim to pay off the bonds in 20 years or less using earnings from the state’s oil tax savings account known as the Legacy Fund, which voters enacted in 2010. The fund’s value is currently $7.8 billion and it’s expected to earn about $500 million in the next two-year budget cycle.
Democrats also had offered a sweeping $2 billion bonding package that includes a revolving loan fund of $750 million for school construction. The proposal was seen only as a political statement from the party that is badly outnumbered in the Legislature.
The ambitious billion-dollar bonding proposals from Republicans, Democrats and Burgum were expected to highlight the session. But the legislature that has shown little appetite for borrowing money to pay for projects, and many saw any bonding proposal doomed from the start.
For several years, the state rode a wave of unprecedented growth — and spending — due to generally healthy commodity prices and rapid oil development in western North Dakota as the state became the No. 2 oil producer in the U.S. behind Texas. The state budget has more than doubled in the past decade, and lawmakers generally have funded projects with money on hand, instead of borrowing for them.

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North Dakota

North Dakota sees no COVID-19 deaths for 5th time this month

BISMARCK (AP) — North Dakota’s rate of positive examinations for COVID-19 remained low in Monday’s daily update, which included its usual sparse amount of processed tests from the weekend.
The list included 69 new cases from 2,194 tests, a positivity rate of 3.63%. The COVID Tracking Project reports that North Dakota’s rolling average number of daily new cases over the past two weeks has decreased by more than 27%.
A total of 95,934 people have tested positive since the start of the pandemic. The state has seen a steady decline of daily cases since peaking in mid-November and ranks 48th per capita in the country for new cases over the last two weeks, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers.
The update showed no deaths in the last day, the fifth time this month that no fatalities have been reported in a 24-hour period. The death count, which stands at a total of 1,384, is the sixth highest per capita at 185 deaths per 100,000 people, researchers said.
Hospitalizations increased by six in the last day, to 91. The state’s hospital tracker shows there are 32 staffed intensive care unit beds and 351 staffed inpatient beds available throughout North Dakota.
A statewide mask mandate that was ordered in mid-November was allowed to expire Monday morning.

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North Dakota

Bill would bar North Dakota businesses from refusing cash

BISMARCK (AP) — A Republican North Dakota lawmaker wants to prohibit businesses from banning cash as a payment, saying cashless transactions create economic barriers for some residents.
Rep. Ben Koppelman introduced HB 1299 this week with GOP lawmakers in both chambers signing on as co-sponsors. The legislation would bar businesses from refusing to accept cash from someone making an in-person purchase. Businesses that fail to comply could face fines of up to $250 for a first violation and $500 for any repeated violation.
Koppelman, of West Fargo, said not everyone has a bank account or credit or debit cards. He said an increasing number of businesses in North Dakota have gone cashless because of the “fear of virus transfer” from coronavirus pandemic and a shortage of coins across the U.S.
Public officials and health experts have said that the risk of transferring the virus person-to-person through the use of cash or coins is small.
The increasing “digital and plastic” economy “disenfranchises low income, some elderly and those who truly love freedom,” he said.
Banning cashless purchases does not create a hardship for businesses, only consumers, he said.
“I’ve heard people say if a business won’t take their money, they will go somewhere else,” said Koppelman, a building contractor. “The problem is there may not be somewhere else.”
“This is chicken and egg,” he said. “I don’t think we should have all our eggs in one basket.”
According to the U.S. Federal Reserve, there is currently no federal law mandating that businesses or individuals accept paper currency or coins for payment.
“Private businesses are free to develop their own policies on whether to accept cash unless there is a state law that says otherwise,” according to the agency’s website.
Some other states, including Massachusetts, and municipalities already ban cashless businesses. Massachusetts passed its law in 1978.
North Dakota’s proposed law would have some exceptions, such as parking facilities.

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North Dakota

ND entering 2nd phase of vaccine groups

BISMARCK (AP) — The elderly and people with underlying health conditions in North Dakota are beginning to receive their first COVID-19 vaccine doses as the state enters the second phase of vaccine priority groups, health officials said.
Sanford Health Bismarck on Thursday began vaccinating some of its patients eligible for the next phase. Jim Wheeler received his first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at a Sanford vaccination clinic and called it “a piece of cake.”
Sanford Health Fargo is scheduled to begin administering the COVID-19 vaccine Friday. Fargo Cass Public Health officials say they’re expecting to begin distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine on Monday.
The state Health Department on Thursday reported 248 new COVID-19 cases, for a total of 95,378 since the start of the pandemic. The lab processed 9,471 tests, for a daily positivity rate of 3%.
Officials confirmed eight deaths in the last day, increasing the total number of fatalities to 1,365. The death count is the seventh highest per capita at 180.5 deaths per 100,000 people, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers.