State residents ignore law making car-idling illegal
BISMARCK, North Dakota — When the winds howl and the bone-numbing cold sets in, scores of North Dakotans willingly become lawbreakers by warming up their vehicles without being in them, ignoring a potential $1,500 state fine and 30 days in jail.
"It's ineffective. The people ignore it. Let's get rid of it," said Republican state Rep. Daniel Johnston, who is sponsoring a bill that would make it legal for people to leave their vehicles running unattended, amending a statute that has been on the books since the 1940s that no one can remember being enforced.
No one spoke against amending the law at a recent committee hearing.
North Dakota's law was put on the books nearly 75 years ago as a deterrent against automobile theft. Several states in recent years have enacted anti-idling laws in an effort to improve air quality.
The National Conference of State Legislatures said idling wastes about 6 billion gallons of fuel annually, but even the environmental group Sierra Club is not standing in the way of the effort to make idling legal.
Wayde Schafer, the group's North Dakota spokesman, said banning idling vehicles is futile in North Dakota, where it's considered a necessary evil because of brutal winter weather.
Bismarck Police Chief Dave Draovitch, who has spent nearly three decades with the department, said idling vehicles that are left unattended is not something that officers enforce.
"If we ever wrote a citation for it, I'd be surprised," Draovitch said.
Jennifer Wagner of Minot had her vehicle stolen years ago after leaving it running to drop off some items at her church. She now owns a business with her husband that installs remote starters that allow a driver to preheat a vehicle before getting into it.
Most remote starters are equipped with anti-theft systems that won't allow the vehicle to be opened or driven without a key, she said.
Wagner said she and other North Dakotans don't buy the argument that vehicles warm up quicker while being driven.
"No one wants to get in a frozen car in North Dakota and let it warm up," she said. "No one."
Lawmaker proposes to give $8M to build border wall
HELENA, Montana — A Republican state lawmaker is proposing to give more than $8 million to help build President Donald Trump's proposed wall on the Mexican border, while South Dakota senators voted last week to endorse the president's plans.
As Trump holds firm in his demands for $5.7 billion to build the wall, state lawmakers in some parts of Trump Country are backing him up with their own legislation.
Their efforts are mostly symbolic. The resolution passed in the South Dakota Senate simply urges construction of a steel barrier. The separate $8 million proposal in Montana would have little chance of getting past a Democratic governor who is exploring a run for president.
Gov. Steve Bullock, who said $8 million would go a long way to fund health care or infrastructure work in Montana, declined to say whether he'd veto the bill if it landed on his desk.
Scott Sales, a fiscally conservative Republican who leads the Montana Senate and the bill’s sponsor, said he calculated Montana's "share" of the cost of the wall by dividing the state's gross domestic product by the national GDP and multiplying it by $5.7 billion.
Montana's $8 million wouldn't go very far, with Trump's $5.7 billion request expected to build 234 miles of wall.
House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner, a Democrat, said the Legislature should focus its spending on Montana's roads, building, water and sewer projects.
Montana, where Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by 20 points, shares a 545-mile border with Canada, where there is no wall. The state is about 1,000 miles from Mexico.
Bill would let local governments join state insurance pool
Casper’s leaders recently urged state lawmakers to allow local government employees the option of joining the state employees’ health insurance program. Earlier this month, a bill that would do just that was introduced at the state legislature.
“I believe it makes sense as a larger pool usually means that rates might get more competitive and possibly bring premiums down,” said state Rep. Pat Sweeney, one of the bill’s sponsors.
The bill states that a “local government entity may make coverage through the state employees’ and officials’ group insurance program available to the officers and employees of the entity.”
Casper City Manager Carter Napier has said joining the state’s health insurance plan might be one way to help fix the city employees’ health fund crisis. Joining a larger insurance pool would help keep costs down from year to year, he said, as one sick person in a pool of several thousand is less likely to spike costs.
In November, the City Council passed an amendment to the upcoming fiscal year’s budget that allotted an additional $1.5 million to bolster the health insurance fund, which was facing a $2.5 million hole. But Napier said at the time that the additional money will only keep the account afloat for another year.
“We’ve got to find a solution that doesn’t need a significant cash infusion each year,” he said.
The council has raised rates on employees receiving health insurance just once since 2011. Since then, the annual claim costs have risen from $5.67 million to $7.91 million, according to city data.
Napier, who was brought on as city manager in 2017, has declined to speculate about why city employees’ premiums were only increased once in seven years. But he told the City Council in May that it’s “bad news” for the fund.
Some council members have criticized past councils for failing to address the health fund issue sooner. Others have explained that it seemed cruel to increase health insurance premiums when the city wasn’t in a position to give out raises due to the economic downturn.
University offers unusual sports scholarships to up enrollment
OMAHA — Midland University is looking for innovative ways to boost enrollment, including offering scholarships for activities such as shotgun sports, powerlifting and e-sports.
The university is recruiting students with scholarships in 32 competitive activities, which administrators have said is the largest number of varsity activities offered by any Nebraska college.
Sophomore Joe Peña was recruited to Midland as a super-heavyweight powerlifter and now he's studying nursing. He told the Omaha World-Herald that Midland is a rare college that offers scholarships to powerlifters.
Midland's president, Jody Horner, said the school has nearly reached the limit of sports scholarships it can offer.
Horner's recruitment approach is to be "relentlessly relevant" to today's students, she said. The university's enrollment has grown from 650 in 2009 to nearly 1,400 in 2018.
Both public and private colleges across the U.S. are becoming more creative in student recruitment efforts, but private colleges like Midland have more leeway to take risks because they don't rely on taxpayer funds, according to Thomas Harnisch of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
Midland administrators said they've received little, if any, criticism for their creative approach to recruiting students.
Partnership aims to help New Mexico tribe monitor its land
ALBUQUERQUE — A Native American community in northern New Mexico will soon get help from solar-powered drones to monitor its vast land holdings from above.
Under a new partnership with Santa Fe-based Wildflower International, unmanned aerial systems made by Albuquerque-based Silent Falcon UAS Technologies will assist Pojoaque Pueblo in managing its roaming bison herd, mapping cultural sites and improving fire control and search-and-rescue efforts.
The project will provide an opportunity for the 27-year-old information technology firm to train its newly-formed UAS flight team.
Wildflower partnered in 2018 with Silent Falcon, which equips its solar-powered drones with infrared cameras and other sensors for real-time surveillance and imaging. It sells the system to public and private entities worldwide, but it's now moving into service-based contracts to operate its system for customers.
Wildflower already scored its first UAS contract to provide services with Silent Falcon drones to the U.S. Homeland Security Department starting in April. To do that, Wildflower's new six-member flight team needs to train in real-world terrain, which the Pojoaque partnership provides.