North Dakota lawmakers, new governor prepare for session
BISMARCK—North Dakota lawmakers will gather here Tuesday, Jan. 3, to mark the beginning of another legislative session after a year that saw budget cuts and a rare special session to deal with a projected revenue shortfall.
But House Majority Leader Al Carlson sees at least one bright spot in their fiscal situation.
"I always tell people it's easier to govern when you have less money because then it's easier to say no," the Fargo Republican said. "Every session is dominated by money, whether it's too much or not enough."
The 80-day session will begin almost a year after former Gov. Jack Dalrymple ordered budget cuts of just over 4 percent for most state agencies, a move prompted by lower oil and farm commodity prices that hampered revenues. He later called lawmakers to Bismarck for a special session in August.
Dalrymple's successor, Republican Doug Burgum, is preparing for his first legislative session as governor. Sitting on an exercise ball in his new office last week, he signaled his desire to work with lawmakers, citing major issues such as opioid addiction, crowded prisons and ongoing protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline.
"We've got big issues," Burgum said. "Trying to get above some squabbles would be good because then we can focus on delivering real results for people."
Burgum will give his first State of the State address Tuesday.
But Burgum isn't the only newcomer to Bismarck. There are 35 new legislators in the 65th legislative assembly, according to the Legislative Council.
Republicans bolstered their House and Senate majorities in the Nov. 8 election, reducing the number of Democrats in the 141-member Legislature to just 22.
"No matter what our numbers are, our role is the same: We represent people back home and need to make sure our constituents' voices are heard," said House Minority Leader Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks. "And in some cases, our members are going to have to pick up a little bit more of that mantle."
Mock said North Dakota Democrats want to provide a counter to the Republican majority "where that's necessary" but said the two sides are more alike than different.
"(Carlson) and I are going to disagree on some policies, our caucuses are going to disagree on some policies," he said. "But we're probably going to agree on more than (we disagree)."
Before leaving office in December, Dalrymple presented a final executive budget for the 2017-19 biennium that called for a 21 percent reduction in general fund spending from what legislators passed in the 2015 session. It includes $4.78 billion in general fund appropriations, and it calls for reducing the number of state employees by 583 full-time positions, 315 of them in higher education.
Republican Sen. Ray Holmberg, the Appropriations Committee chairman, said the revenue projections in Dalrymple's budget were too optimistic, given data on sales tax collections that came out after the budget was crafted.
"There's no question the first thing the Legislature has to do is reset the baseline, which will happen the first week," Holmberg said. "The big key on the first week is to determine how much income we're going to estimate we're going to have."
Holmberg said he hadn't heard details from Burgum's office on budget recommendations, but he hopes any major proposed changes would come in the first few weeks.
"We have signaled to people who have asked—legislative leadership and others—that we think that we're going to have to lower the revenue, or at least have a viewpoint that the revenue forecast is going to go down versus what was proposed," Burgum said.
Carlson said it'll be important that the new governor and legislators communicate well with each other.
"If he wants to reform government, to downsize it, he's going to find some real allies in the House," he said.
Across the aisle, Mock said he had a "great conversation" with Burgum on the day he took office in mid-December, adding he's "excited to have someone who's that open and receptive in the governor's office." He hopes Burgum will work with both parties to craft sound public policy.
"If that's his priority, then him and I are going to have a lot in common," Mock said.
Given the financial struggles the state has experienced since the 2015 session, Mock predicted 70 percent of the Legislature's time and attention will be tied to the budget or economy this session. But a review of the bills that were filed early shows a number of other issues will come up as well, including 80 mph speed limits on North Dakota interstates, requiring only one license plate for motor vehicles and a bill allowing state correctional officers to carry guns at public gatherings such as sporting events, schools and churches.
Carlson predicted the Legislature will have to "clean up" the measure legalizing medical marijuana that voters passed Nov. 8, which he said was "very vague."
"We need to make sure that's properly regulated and controlled," he said. "We're not going to shut down what the measure did on the medical side, but we are definitely going to have to tighten (it) up for both law enforcement and the health department issues of that product to make sure that it's safe for the people and it's what they thought they were getting in the measure."