Sen. Erin Oban (D-Bismarck) talks about the Legislature at crossover, the priorities for Democrats going forward, education and budget issues, and the move toward legalization of marijuana.
Watch a video of the conversation on our YouTube channel.
Dave Thompson: This is "Legislative Review" on Prairie Public both on radio and on our digital platforms. Our guest this week is State Senator Erin Oban. She's a Democrat from Bismarck. Senator Oban, thanks for being here.
Senator Erin Oban: Hey Dave, nice to be with you.
Dave: You are the assistant minority leader, correct?
Sen. Oban: Yeah.
Dave: So, just in a brief explanation what is the duty of the assistant minority leader?
Sen. Oban: Not a lot when you're in the minority. No, you know, I help out with some procedural things on the floor. Make sure that motions get seconded make sure that you know, if we want a specific recorded or roll call vote or something like that that that gets done. Run up to the desk if there's any sort of business happening right before, during, or after a floor session. That's ultimately what it is. Certainly if you watch the proceedings of the Senate you'll see how much work the assistant, the majority leader does. And God bless him, he's really good at it so.
Dave: So you have just finished crossover. You're back from crossover. As we enter the second period as what has been described as a three period hockey game.
Sen. Oban: Yeah.
Dave: What are your big issues that you're gonna be watching this time?
Sen. Oban: So we really came into this session with four major priorities and those priorities kinda encompass making sure that in the short term we get through and recover from Covid. And that those decisions are not just reactive but also good for the long term needs of the state. And those four priorities kind of went around the ideas of making sure that our communities and our state has economic stability. So diversifying our economy as best we can, investing in our small businesses and technology, making sure the health and well being of our people is first and foremost in what we do. Both physical and behavioral health, I would add. At some point maybe we won't have to distinguish the differences between physical and behavioral health because it will just be health. But making sure we build on some progress we made on behavioral health last session. Making sure that we address the infrastructure needs that we have heard loud and clear from communities large and small. You know, that includes things like roads and bridges but also some soft infrastructure needs like housing, childcare food security, which you know, during the interim we did a study on the pretty quick decline of grocery stores in the state of North Dakota. So some issues that are pretty important I think to rural North Dakotan's. And then of course, education. So making sure that our commitment to fund public education at a pretty high level from the state, continues. We know that whatever the state does not invest from our position falls on the backs of property tax payers. And from everything I have ever heard in my, you know now six years or so in office property tax is still the one that people feel the most frustrated and burdened by.
Dave: I know you're in the education committee so I wanted to ask you this question because when the governor proposed his budget he proposed flat per pupil funding for the next two years. And every time I would talk to educators about a flat per pupil funding they say that's actually a cut because it doesn't take into account even simple inflation. But, there seems to be some other pots of money that are out there right now. Have you looked into that?
Sen. Oban: Well yeah, you know, we know that the money that has come through the feds throughout the pandemic has certainly added quite a bit more than anybody was anticipating to those local school budgets. And so we have made some adjusting in what, you know, what districts can have remaining in their ending fund balance which we do limit at the state level to make sure that there aren't districts stockpiling money while still collecting significant tax revenue from either the state or their local property tax payers. So we want to make sure that we recognize that and that we're encouraging smart investments at the local level. That we aren't you know, hoping that they just spend money just because they have it but that we're investing in areas that can improve the academic outcomes and the lives of students of families. Ultimately that's what those dollars should be spent on. That doesn't mean it should replace what our obligations are at the state level though.
Dave: So speaking of that, that leads me into another question because superintendent Baesler and I have had a discussion about that. That's she's concerned, you know, because the pandemic changed the way kids were learning. They were learning at home, learning on computers. They were not involved in interaction at school. And there is some concern that maybe some of the students fell behind. What is your perspective on that?
Sen. Oban: Well I think we need to just accept the fact that we all went through a pretty traumatic time that none of us were anticipating having to do. Whether we fared through that well or not yes, it did disrupt what students are used to, how students are used to learning. Now, we can look at that as it's presented some opportunity to be more flexible in our delivery, delivery of education, to recognize that not all kids learn the same. Of course, educators have also always recognized that. Online learning has its place and has benefits and it's been a platform that has worked well for some learners. It has presented significant challenges for other learners. And for us not to figure out how we can, how we can be creative in making sure that students get the supports that they need but also recognizing, we have all gone through this together and so to just put that on kids as if somehow they all should've come through at the same pace, or at the same place where they were pre-pandemic would be, we would set ourselves up for failure doing that. So you know, I think we need to give ourselves a little bit of grace and recognize that kids are resilient. If we lead them that way. So you know, what I hope from the state level is that we provide the kind of supports that folks need and if that means that schools or parents want to participate in summer programming or extended school days or you know, heck, there are states that are year round school. There are many ways that we can do this if we are concerned about what those impacts have been to our student's academics.
Dave: But your point may be well taken that the Zooms and the Microsoft Teams and the other technology that's being used is being used more often now and we think, there are a lot of people think that this has changed, not only schools but other interactions that we've seen.
Sen. Oban: Absolutely.
Dave: This is going to be a permanent change perhaps.
Sen. Oban: Well I mean, the legislature is a really good example of that Dave. There were a lot of things that, some folks dug their heels in in the legislature, about not wanting advancements and technology whether that's opening up our committee hearings to be broadcast public, live. You know, those are benefits. And so everybody has been impacted by this. Schools, the same as businesses. You know, the same as healthcare. Obviously not all of them the same ways. But we've all been impacted by this and there will be some positives that come out of it and certainly I hope we learn from the challenges that it presented.
Dave: Well a lot of things, you mentioned the legislature. There was a lot of resistance to that. I remember that. Because there were plans to wire committee rooms. They didn't want to do that. Now the committee rooms are wired-
Sen. Oban: Well it also helps Dave when somebody else pays for it.
Dave: Well that's true too. But now you've got the committee rooms wired and people can testify remotely. And even conference committees are going to be televised which is a real change for the legislature.
Sen. Oban: Yeah, I think it provides another level of accountability which to me, is always good in government. And transparency in what we do. That is good. It's created an opportunity for people to participate in their government at far greater numbers. We've seen that in some recent reports about the number of people who are observing, the number of people who have testified has gone up significantly and that's a really good thing. The more perspectives you involve the more you understand the impacts of the decisions we're making here. I hope the better the outcome. Certainly not always a guarantee but at least people have an opportunity to make their voices heard in the process.
Dave: And again, this is probably a very permanent change too.
Sen. Oban: I would guess so. And it's also been really pretty cool to watch you know, some of my colleagues who have been physically absent from the chamber either because of illness or something else be able to still participate in floor session. And make sure that their districts are represented in those votes.
Dave: I want to go back to something else you said about behavioral health. And this stems from the conversation I had with Senator Bekkedahl last week. He said that the real problem in behavioral health in western North Dakota a lack of facilities. He said that you know, there was, the studies have shown there weren't personnel out there for behavioral health. He said that in his experience they can recruit people to come out and provide that type of service but the facilities are not there. Is this something that legislature's gonna have to look deeper into?
Sen. Oban: Well you know, I'm not, although I grew up in western North Dakota I'm not as familiar you know, as Senator Bekkedahl would be with the access to facilities. Or to you know, the people providers might be there but maybe the capacity through a hospital or something like that might not be there. I did see that there's some exciting news coming out of Williston that you know, Sanford, one particular provider is expanding. Hopefully that means increased access to behavioral health services as well. You know, it's always a challenge to make sure that the state is responding to the needs of all North Dakotan's while also recognizing some of the changes you know, that have happened you know, rural is getting more rural urban centers are getting more populated and unfortunately that usually changes where those services go for better or for worse. You know, as somebody who's, I grew up in a very small rural town in western North Dakota and as my parents got older, they moved here particularly for access to services as they age. So I understand those challenges. To claim I have the answer would be lying. And I'll try not to do that.
Dave: Yeah, and of course going along with that you know, the Schulte Report and other reports said judges in western North Dakota were sentencing people to prison not necessarily because they needed prison but they needed the social services, the behavioral health services.
Sen. Oban: Yeah oftentimes, that is how people get access. And that should not be how you enter into a system of behavioral healthcare is by being incarcerated. If you indeed don't belong behind bars. That's a really sad reality I hope we're making some progress on that front as well. And certainly with criminal justice reform. I think we've made some positive strides in North Dakota but we can and should always want to do better. And if that fact still exists where judges are sentencing people to you know, prison time just to try to get them the care that they need that's, well that's not appropriate obviously. And it's an injustice to the individuals who just need their basic healthcare served.
Dave: And now for something not completely different pardon me, Monty Python. But you're going to be dealing with the bonding bill. And the bonding bill out of the House is $680 million specifically geared toward a lot of water projects. The FM Diversion Minot Flood Control. And then some other things might be in there. And the idea was to free up some of the money that's in the water trust fund to do some of the smaller water projects. It was not what was originally proposed in the bonding bill. Senator Mathern had his $2 billion bonding bill. The governor proposed 1.2 billion. The Republicans originally had a 1.1 billion now it's at 680. Just from your perspective where do you think that might be going in the Senate? Do you think there's appetite for doing more?
Sen. Oban: Well I sure hope so. You know, we've heard that there is well over two billion in need. And to only you know, when we only meet every two years maybe that will change, maybe it won't to go another two years adding impacts to impacts is not the right way we should be handling that. And we know that there are some attitudes that need to change and shift about the idea of bonding longterm projects rather than paying with cash out of the general fund. We understand that. What I liked and would give props to was Senator Mathern's you know, that it was the Senate bill what ended up being the Senate bill on bonding. It was not a gift to any certain project. It was not, it was very broadly laid out for these kinds, for housing, for water, for education. To me, the way policy should look. Not just little, essentially gifts for votes in return. Of course, the projects that you mentioned I think are absolutely necessary for us to deal with this session. But it doesn't diminish what those other needs are across the state and what we have heard, and gotten reports on of what those needs are across other areas not just limited to water. But you know, if I've heard anything once I've heard it a million times around here. I think the saying is, whisky's for drinking and water's for fighting. So I think that's what we're going to see. I do think the Senate will try to bump that number up though.
Dave: Do you think some of the money will go toward centers for technical education, career and technical education centers?
Sen. Oban: Potentially, you know, we have a lot of be proud of here in Bismarck. And in my district lies the, it's a partnership really between Bismarck Public Schools a regional education association Bismarck State College, and it's a wonderful program for students to access. And there are students from many areas of the state that end up coming to that CTE Center. You know, I want kids to have access to that no matter where they live. What I also know is that you don't always need brick and mortar to be able to learn. And so what I heard pretty resoundingly is from areas across the state who might not need a building but they want to enhance programs. And so I don't want us to just get focused on a building. While I understand that some folks out east really want that and I think that's great. And if there's strong buy-in locally you know, I understand that sometimes then the state gets involved in supporting those projects. I just want to make sure that we recognize that learning doesn't have to happen just in a building. While CTE does come with some challenges with needing some additional infrastructure for that.
Dave: Another thing that was part of the bonding bill originally was some money for roads and bridges infrastructure, that's not in the bill right now but apparently there's some efforts to maybe revive that. What are you hearing?
Sen. Oban: Well you know, in the committees I serve I don't hear a lot about those kind of you know, this is what we're thinking. Certainly we get reports back from, especially those folks serving on the appropriations committee. I'm sure that the Senate will push a little bit harder in what was included in our bill to make sure that we are meeting some of those needs. We know that when we dig our heels in and say we won't increase the gas tax we know that money coming from the feds is not increasing when it comes to those kinds of things. We need to start paying for the things we expect. And that is not a novel concept. That's a pretty North Dakota thing to do I think is when you expect something you pay for it in return. And I was on a panel with economic development folks during this interim and that's something they said loud and clear. They said we don't want any more incentive programs we don't want any more tax cuts. What we want is good roads outside of our businesses. And an acceptance that we're going to have to pay for that.
Dave: I know the prairie dog bill to set, that was two years ago, last session. Now it's touted as a big infrastructure bill then oil prices went down.
Sen. Oban: Right.
Dave: And the buckets didn't fill up as much as they were supposed to fill up. And there seems to be a little bit more optimism that they will eventually fill up again.
Sen. Oban: But maybe that goes to show that the way we're doing this does not provide the level of stability. You know, what they, people want stability. That's what they want, they want to know what they're going to get and that it's going to be there. And really that, to me was the problem with the prairie dog bill is that there were quite a few promises and those promises didn't all come into fruition. And then you know, locals were left holding those needs without a way to fund them.
Dave: I wanted to get into higher education just for a moment. And back to that challenge grant bill which turned out to be an interesting discussion on the Senate floor that day.
Sen. Oban: What a ride.
Dave: Where the, now the two parochial universities University of Jamestown and University of Mary are now involved might be getting in, and the argument was money follows the student. And then of course, there was the prohibition about NDSU working with Planned Parenthood.
Sen. Oban: Right.
Dave: And I assume you were a no vote on those two amendments.
Sen. Oban: I was, those are, that's a correct assumption. You know, I've made perfectly clear that I'm pretty principled on the idea that I think public funds go to public institutions. I was a student at University of Mary, I got a great education there. I had a great experience. But I also knew that I was attending a private university when I made that decision. And we do have programs. You know, the high school scholarship program goes to any high school graduate no matter where they attend. So you know, we do have some programs already in place. You know, that challenge grant was specifically set up to recognize that we were going to have to stop making quite a significant investment in our higher ed institutions from the state level. And this was a way to try to encourage their you know, their foundations to get really active, to find matching dollars from private donors. And then the state would kick some in. And you know, that's something I felt should be retained and they have that debate on the amendment in the appropriations committee. And this is the process you know? He was able to bring that amendment forward. We debated it, and it passed. So that's what will be debated over in the House now.
Dave: Well this also points out a difference between the House and Senate. The House does not allow amendments from the floor. The Senate does allow amendments from the floor.
Sen. Oban: Right.
Dave: So the discussions get a little more interesting in the Senate sometimes.
Sen. Oban: Yeah sometimes they're especially interesting when we don't know one is coming.
Dave: I wanted to ask you about something that you'll be, the Senate is gonna be taking a look at. The House has passed a measure to legalize to an extent, recreational marijuana. It would be done through the existing compassion centers for medical marijuana, that's where the sales would be. And also there would be the two grow centers. And this was an effort by some of the House to try to head off any kind of initiated measure or constitutional measure. How do you feel about the issue?
Sen. Oban: Well I certainly agree that it does not belong in the Constitution. I also understand when the public gets frustrated with what they don't feel is a legislature responding to what they want that sometimes they go that route. And I also know, you know, that there are, attitudes have changed about marijuana. Certainly you know, some of the science has changed. Shows us more than maybe we knew before. This is, I think you are right in characterizing this as the legislature's effort to make sure that the public doesn't do this on their own. And I do think that if we want to be involved if marijuana is legalized in some degree with the regulation and taxation of marijuana then that is what we have a responsibility to do. And for that reason, you know, again I haven't read the intricacies of the bill I have not been in the hearings. So I can't say for sure. But generally speaking, that is something I support because I, it's a really tough subject to I think, put regulations and taxations in place on the ballot. So I think that it will be interesting to watch this process roll out but I do believe if it is going to be legalized that it needs to be, there needs to be some restrictions in place. And if we're smart, we'll tax things that people don't need.
Dave: So do you, at least at first blush though you think that the restrictions that are, that Representative Dockter has put in that bill seem to be reasonable?
Sen. Oban: From everything that I've heard, yes. I've heard some folks are a little bit frustrated with what it looks like and I again, I need to see before I can say for sure. So yeah, I will follow that one closely.
Dave: There was one other thing that I wanted to ask you about. There were attempts to raise the cigarette tax. They failed again. There's been a little movement now to be a little bit more open with cigar bars. I don't think you've seen that bill, have you? In the Senate?
Sen. Oban: No, I do think it might have been introduced in the Senate last session and you know, at that time we were still within the seven years after the initiated measure passed that required a greater majority of the legislature to change any of that. You know, in full disclosure I worked in tobacco prevention for a number of years and got to know the issue pretty in depth and understand the connection between policy between taxation, and use. And really what the cost of that addiction is to not just the user but to all of the people around us who pay insurance or you know, if the individual happens to be on any sort of Medicaid program. And you know, my father was a long time, long time smoker. And so there are a lot of feelings involved in these kinds of issues. But there is so much data that shows us that the higher the tax the lower the use. And that's specifically true with young people. And if we can sort of rally around anything where we can agree it should be that we don't want young people to start using a product that is proven to be so much more addictive than most other you know, drugs or alcohol. So I think if we reflect on that that should be the reason we do it, in my opinion. Not necessarily to get more tax revenue but to reduce that use amongst young people.
Dave: In the few minutes we have left I wanted to get into this issue because you're a state senator from Bismarck you have a lot of state employees that are your constituents. Are you seeing a lot of them working from home are you hearing from them? Are they going to stay working from home even after the pandemic eases?
Sen. Oban: I have heard quite a bit from them. You know, especially throughout the interim when those changes were being made. And there are a lot of different feelings on that issue of working from home. Some of it you know, some of it, I don't know if it's generational. I know there are, I attempted to work from home many years ago and I was terrible at it. And frankly, after I became a mom and I was balancing a lot more things turns out working from home, I found a way to be really efficient and really effective doing that. And I think that the people have varying opinions on that. I hope that it isn't being forced on anybody. I don't want anybody to have to use their homes as their office if it's not something they don't want to do. And there will just be a level of, of people who have to continue to work in those spaces whether it's for access to the public whether it's for security reasons that we need people in those buildings. What I support is the flexibility as long as it's not being forced on anybody.
Dave: Senator, thank you very much we're out of time unfortunately.
Sen. Oban: Wow, well that goes by quickly Dave.
Dave: It does.
Sen. Oban: It was so nice to be with you, thanks so much.
Dave: Nice to be with you too. Our guest Senator Erin Oban. She's a Democrat from Bismarck. For Prairie Public, I'm Dave Thompson.