FARGO — The Fargo-Moorhead-West Fargo Chamber of Commerce hosted a panel discussion Tuesday, Dec. 15, with four of the Fargo area's state legislators to discuss business issues in the run-up to North Dakota's 2021 legislative session.

District 46 Sen. Jim Roers, District 45 Sen. Ron Sorvaag, District 13 Sen. Judy Lee and District 44 Rep. Karla Rose Hanson participated in the panel discussion that covered the government's role in aiding economic recovery and workforce issues.

Sorvaag argued the state government was obligated to assist businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic since the state mandated the business shutdowns that took place in the early stages of the pandemic. He advocated staying involved wherever possible while focusing on any small thing that can be done to help businesses.

For its part, the Fargo City Commission unanimously agreed Monday, Dec. 14, to provide a rebate to bars and restaurants which have already paid their liquor license or food inspection fees for 2021 and waive their city utility charges for the first six months of 2021. On average, the city's 440 bars and food service establishments would each save $2,500.

Sorvaag commended the Commission's decision, calling it a "great idea" to help Fargo's businesses. "It's not very big, but it will all help a little bit," he said, adding he hoped the state Legislature would do something similar.

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While Sorvaag called on the federal government to provide further support to states, he said the state has a role to play as well.

"We need to look at opportunities, especially for the really small businesses, to keep their heads above water," he said. "I hope we can be open-minded to every opportunity out there that we can afford."

Though hospitality industries were severely affected, all businesses had to face the ramifications of COVID-19, Roers said.

"There are so many different businesses affected in different ways that there's no one-size-fits-all solution," he remarked.

Saying the state should look at assisting businesses "incrementally" and bring relief "right where it's needed," Roers' approach to assisting businesses mirrored Sorvaag's. Roers pointed to the federal government's Paycheck Protection Program, which he argued was the best initiative government has taken to help businesses weather the pandemic.

As the conversation shifted to workforce issues, Hanson called for the state to adopt the paid family leave proposal she and other Democrats in Bismarck intend to put forward during the coming legislative session.

"The need for paid family leave existed before the pandemic, and once the pandemic subsides, it will continue to be a need for families," she said.

While the Family Medical Leave Act guarantees employees unpaid leave time to tend to family and medical matters, Hanson said the state should move one step further.

The paid family leave proposal, she said, would create a "state-facilitated" program into which employers and employees would pay. Funds could then be drawn to compensate employees as necessary. Hanson said she and colleagues are refining their proposal from 2019's session to maximize benefits for families and appeal to employers.

She added the proposal would level the playing field between small and large businesses since larger businesses can offer more attractive benefits packages.

"By participating in a state-facilitated pool with other small companies, they're able to compete for talent along with the large companies," she said.

The paid family leave proposal would also be a "competitive differentiator" in attracting young families to North Dakota since surrounding states do not currently offer it, Hanson said.

Though she said she is "willing to talk about anything," Lee was skeptical of Hanson's proposal.

"I personally struggle with the idea that the state is going to do something better than what businesses or employees privately can do," Lee said.

Roers, the CEO of the real estate development firm which bears his name, said paid family leave has yet to surpass other benefits, such as health care standard paid time off, as a priority for employees.

The "biggest hang-up" of Hanson's proposal, Roers said, was that business would have to finance an employee's personal decisions. "We should not, as a business or an industry, be expected to share the burden of (a family decision)."

On the subject of addressing the state's need for more highly-skilled workers, Sorvaag said the state needs to maintain its focus on workforce academies and other opportunities for employees to improve their skills.

"The state needs to first of all keep encouraging and investing in things that provide good-paying jobs and opportunities to move up," he said. "We've got to be willing to invest in training the workforce in doing those jobs, so they go hand in hand."

Sorvaag said the state should listen to educators and employers to guide their decision-making on workforce training while adding that the state could also benefit from retraining its current workforce.

Noting the impact of the state's two flagship universities, North Dakota State University and the University of North Dakota, Roers said the state should continue to ensure that its public schools are attractive to out-of-state students.

According to Roers, 60% of Minnesota residents who graduate from NDSU take their first job in North Dakota, translating to 4,000 students a year entering the state.

"On the eastern part of the state, we depend a tremendous amount on Minnesota students," he said.

"There is no recruiting tool that we know of in the state of North Dakota that is more responsive than our higher education system," Roers continued. "That is something we have got to keep our eye on and keep pushing forward."