5 things to know today: PERS Board, Mental health, Sports betting, Judicial appointment, Budget increase – InForum

1. Port: Tension in the Legislature after lawmaker and Sanford Health employee is appointed to PERS Board

The name of the North Dakota Public Employees Retirement System, or PERS, can be a little bit misleading, because PERS

does a lot more

than handle retirement system. They also handle other benefits our state’s tens of thousands of public employees enjoy, such as vision, dental, and health insurance coverage.

It’s a very consequential state agency, and it’s governed by a nine-member Board of Trustees of which two members must, by law, be members of the legislature. These members are appointed by

Legislative Management.

The current appointees are Rep. Greg Stemen, a Republican, and Rep. Gretchen Dobervich, at Democrat. Both are from Fargo.

It’s Stemen’s appointment that has raised some eyebrows. He’s an employee of Sanford Health, which also provides health insurance to PERS employees, and perhaps “raised eyebrows” is putting it mildly. Sen. Kyle Davison, a Republican from Fargo, had some sharp words about the appointment during a Friday, Jan. 6, meeting of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Read more from Forum Columnist Rob Port

2. West Fargo schools to add at least 21 mental health staff as need for support grows

Mental health image.jpg

With mental health support needs growing significantly since the COVID-19 pandemic, West Fargo Public Schools will see nearly two dozen additional mental health support staff such as social workers, counselors and psychologists join the district after securing a $12 million grant from the Department of Education .

Annie Richards, director of Behavioral Health and Wellness obtained the grant, which will pay $12 million to the district over a period of five years and is enough to hire at least 21 additional mental health professionals who will be working in the elementary, middle and high schools.

West Fargo officials, as well as other school district officials have said the support for more mental health help has increased greatly since the pandemic began.

There was a 4% increase in total referrals in West Fargo during the 2020-21 school year, but that number increased to 31% the following school year, with referrals growing yet again this year at a disproportionate rate to West Fargo’s enrollment growth.

West Fargo became the first district in North Dakota to create a department centered on behavioral health and wellness, according to district officials.

The West Fargo School Board on Monday, Jan. 9, approved the hiring of 10 of those positions for just over $800,300.

Professions include four additional counselors for about $345,820 per year; three social workers for $195,180, two school psychologists for $172,910 and one additional educator wellness facilitator for $86,455.

Read more from The Forum’s Wendy Reuer

3. Proposed sports betting measure resurfaces; ND voters would decide


Frost blankets the North Dakota State Capitol grounds in Bismarck.

Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune

From the Bismarck Tribune via Forum News Service

North Dakota voters could legalize sports betting next year under a proposed measure.

The House Judiciary Committee on Monday, Jan. 10, heard House Concurrent Resolution 3002, brought by Rep. Greg Stemen, R-Fargo. A similar measure passed the House in 2021, but failed narrowly (twice) in the Senate.

The measure would amend the state constitution — which requires a public vote — and would “authorize sports betting to be conducted in the state and licensed and regulated by the state.” Voters would get the measure in the November 2024 general election if the Legislature approves.

Stemen said sports betting is already taking place in North Dakota, technically illegally and without a regulatory framework; according to American Gaming Association data he cited, as many as 138,000 North Dakotans are betting over $300 million annually, including $30 million in revenues to offshore betting books. Such offshore entities are in Panama, Latvia and Antigua, he said.

“If it’s already happening, let’s regulate it, let’s provide oversight, let’s put consumer protections in place and allow legitimate American gaming entities to partner with the state, and so that the people who are doing it have some protections built in,” Stemen told the Tribune.

Sports betting generally encompasses online wagers placed on professional and college sports, even on outcomes as simple as a coin flip, Stemen said.

North Dakota’s state government could initially garner over $3.5 million annually in tax revenues from sports betting, he added. A 10% tax rate “is a common number,” he said.

Stemen said the 2025 Legislature would enact enabling legislation if voters receive and approve the measure next year.

“Let’s do this one step at a time,” he said.

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4. Raising the Bahr: Burgum taps judge to join North Dakota Supreme Court

Judge Douglas Bahr photo.jpg

Doug Bahr.

Submitted photo

South Central Judicial District Judge Douglas Bahr will take the place of the longest-serving North Dakota Supreme Court justice in state history.

Republican Gov. Doug Burgum announced his appointment of Bahr on Monday, Jan. 9 — about three weeks after a judicial nominating panel

sent the governor a list of three finalists for the position.

Bahr, of Bismarck, will take over for Justice Gerald VandeWalle, who is stepping down at the end of the month. Bahr, 62, will serve until at least the 2026 general election and may run for an eight-year term, which he told Forum News Service he will pursue.

VandeWalle announced in November his

plans to retire

after more than four decades on the high court, including 27 as its chief justice. Hailed as a legend by state leaders, the 89-year-old justice told Forum News Service that recent health challenges, including Parkinson’s disease, have necessitated his retirement.

Burgum said the court will benefit from Bahr’s “analytical skills, compassion, high integrity and character, sense of fundamental fairness and deep understanding of the law.”

“Judge Bahr will make an excellent addition to the North Dakota Supreme Court with his broad legal background in the public and private sectors and his extensive experience at both the state and federal levels,” Burgum said in a news release.

Bahr served as North Dakota’s solicitor general and as an assistant attorney general before Burgum appointed him to the district court judgeship in 2018,

according to a short biography.

Bahr has since been elected twice to retain his judgeship.

Prior to embarking on his legal career, Bahr earned a bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University and a law degree from the University of South Dakota. He previously taught courses at Bismarck State College and served as president of multiple legal organizations, including the State Bar Association of North Dakota.

Bahr said he’s excited to join the court and to continue serving the state. The judge noted that his extensive experience working in the realms of constitutional law and legislative interpretation with the attorney general’s office will give him a unique perspective as a justice.

Read more from Forum News Service’s Jeremy Turley

5. ND attorney general seeks 29% budget increase


North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley is proposing a nearly $24.6 million increase in his office’s budget.

Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune

From the Bismarck Tribune via Forum News Service

North Dakota’s attorney general is proposing a nearly $24.6 million increase to his office’s budget for the 2023-25 ​​biennium, with upgrades at the State Crime Lab among his priorities.

It’s a jump of more than 29% from the office’s current two-year budget, and one key lawmaker indicated it’s unlikely that Attorney General Drew Wrigley will get all of what he seeks.

Wrigley said the financial boost would speed up evidence testing, help boost cooperation between state and tribal law enforcement, and further an effort to slow the proliferation of child pornography.

The absence of firearm and latent fingerprint testing at the state lab creates “a critical situation,” Wrigley said. Law enforcement agencies must find a lab, send evidence to another state, and pay for testing that the state in the past has provided at no cost.

The process presents chain-of-custody issues and takes extra time. That, in turn, can present speedy trial issues that leave judges with no choice but to lower bond requirements, possibly putting violent offenders back on the streets as they await trial, according to Wrigley.

“That undermines public safety. That doesn’t enhance it,” he said.

Wrigley seeks about $110 million for the 2023-25 ​​biennium.

It would fund an additional 26 full-time employees, including two civil litigation attorneys, two general counsel attorneys, four cybercrime investigators, three investigators for the reservations, four firearms scientists, three forensic scientists, one lab assistant, one Medicaid fraud attorney, one Medicaid fraud investigator, one Medicaid fraud paralegal, three information technology employees, and one administrative employee.

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