BISMARCK — After hours of negotiations between top North Dakota lawmakers on Wednesday, Oct. 27, state budget writers adjourned in the evening without reaching an agreement over how to spend the state's hundreds of millions of dollars in federal coronavirus aid.
The House and Senate Appropriations committees agreed on most proposals for the state's $1.1 billion dollars in funding from the American Rescue Plan Act and have spent the last two days mapping out budget lists that target investments in energy, infrastructure, health care and education projects.
But a handful of "real sticky issues" held up the process Wednesday night, said Senate Appropriations Chair Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks. One of those proposals would add $30 million for hospitals into an existing revolving loan fund, and the other would have put $25 million into an administrative and arts building at Minot State University. Those two initiatives have the support of the Senate committee but not the House committee.
The historically frugal House Appropriations Chair Jeff Delzer, R-Underwood, said some on his committee oppose certain allocations for higher education buildings and have questioned whether the hospital revolving loans would hold up under an audit.
Lawmakers plan to return to the capitol Thursday morning to continue negotiations.
The two appropriations committees have been meeting over the last three weeks to put together their spending plan for the federal cash injection ahead of a reconvened legislative session expected to kick off Monday, Nov. 8. Several hundred million out of the federal package will fulfill appropriations made during the legislative session earlier this year, leaving around $700 million for lawmakers to distribute when they return to Bismarck next month.
The contents of the bill could change substantially once the full Legislature gets a crack at it in less than two weeks, but leadership in both chambers want to bring a product to the floor that they think can get broad support.
North Dakota has until 2026 to spend its cut of the federal coronavirus aid, but top lawmakers and Gov. Doug Burgum have pushed to invest the money quickly. As of Wednesday evening, the Senate side's proposal called for spending all but about $21 million of the total $1.1 billion, while the House side came in around $80 million under the total, Holmberg and Delzer said.
The biggest single item on the table is $150 million for a trans-state pipeline to deliver natural gas from the Bakken oil fields to eastern North Dakota, a proposal backed by Burgum and which drew the support of both the House and Senate sides Wednesday evening.
The Legislature is expected to have an intense schedule when it reconvenes in Bismarck next month. Lawmakers have only four days remaining of the constitutionally allotted 80 session days to tackle the federal spending and approve new legislative districts based on the 2020 census results.
If the Legislature calls itself back into session, they will have only those four days to work with and approved bills would not take effect for 90 days unless they receive a two thirds vote.
Burgum could also call the Legislature back for a special session, which would give lawmakers as much time as they need and would allow new laws to take effect as soon as they are filed.
Republican leaders in the Legislature have been holding closed-door discussions with the governor on the possibility of a special session. Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki said those conversations are ongoing.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at email@example.com.