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ND House approves creation of new state department

BISMARCK—The North Dakota governor's Cabinet would grow by one member under a bill passed by House lawmakers Tuesday, March 28.

Citing federal "overreach" on environmental issues, the House passed legislation creating a new Department of Environmental Quality. The department would be created out of what is now the Environmental Health Section of the state Department of Health.

Senate Bill 2327 passed in a 69-23 vote Tuesday. Sen. Jessica Unruh, R-Beulah, who introduced the legislation and chairs the Senate Natural Resources Committee, said she expects the Senate to concur with the House's changes to the 153-page bill.

The bill would shift 150 of the Environmental Health Section's 175 employees to the new department, which would be elevated to a Cabinet-level agency, said Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, R-Fargo. She said the section has become the "first line of defense" against what she described as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's overreach.

Supporters of the change cited the need to maintain "primacy," or the ability of the state to implement federal environmental regulations. They also pushed back against skepticism that the bill would grow state government.

"There's not one additional (full-time employee) ... and there's not an extra dollar," said Rep. Mike Lefor, R-Dickinson. "I'd much rather have someone from Bismarck regulating our state industries rather than someone in Washington."

The House's vote came on the same day President Donald Trump signed an order to reverse Obama-era climate change regulations, and Roers Jones said some may be tempted to deem the change unnecessary in the current political environment. But she said North Dakota should control its own destiny.

"The goal here is not to create a larger government, but more responsive and transparent government," she said.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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