N.D. Legislature plugs $310 million budget gap, looks ahead to next session

BISMARCK - North Dakota lawmakers gave final approval Thursday to a bill plugging a projected $310 million budget shortfall, bringing an end to a three-day special session.The House voted 82-8 to approve the bill, which solves the shortfall by re...

BISMARCK – North Dakota lawmakers adjourned from a historic three-day special session Thursday with a $310 million budget fix that Republican majority leaders called a successful bridge to the 2017 session but Democrats criticized as missing opportunities to help the state’s most vulnerable citizens.

House members passed the bill 82-8, with four members absent and one Republican voting with seven Democrats against it.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who worked with GOP legislative leaders to craft the plan that ultimately sailed through the Legislature unchanged, signed the bill less than an hour after it passed the House.

“This bill accomplishes what needed to be done by taking us to the end of the biennium with a balanced budget,” he said in a statement. “We have some hard work ahead of us, but we are now on course to develop a sound budget plan for the 2017-2019 biennium.”

The bill partially solves the shortfall by recognizing a 2.5 percent, $152 million across-the-board cut to general fund agencies ordered by Dalrymple on Monday, as well as the 4.05 percent, $245 million cut he ordered in February to help offset a $1.07 billion shortfall at that time. The legislative and judicial branches, while not subject to the allotment in state law, will see similar cuts.

To make up the rest of the shortfall, the bill spends the remaining $75 million from the rainy-day Budget Stabilization Fund – Dalrymple already authorized using $497.5 million in February – and up to $100 million in profits from the state-owned Bank of North Dakota.

Several Democrats spoke out against the bill and how it evolved, saying their leaders had no input in drafting it and there was no opportunity for public input.

Amendments offered by Democrats to restore funding cuts made in February to social programs fell flat with the GOP majority. Rep. Pamela Anderson, D-Fargo, noted that even the lone Republican amendment – which proposed even deeper budget cuts – wasn’t considered.

“I’m saying ‘no’ to this staged event,” she said.

House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, defended the bill, saying it “wasn’t done in the dark.” He said the Legislature had to take action to transfer the bank profits and make special appropriations of $33.3 million to offset the 2.5 percent cut to the Department of Human Services and $3.2 million for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to reduce its cut to 1 percent.

Carlson said the cuts come after several years of “exponential” growth in state government spending in recent years, as the state’s oil boom produced unprecedented demand for services and the state took over more and more of the local property tax burden. The general fund budget had more than tripled since 2005-07 to $6.03 billion for 2015-17, part of a record $14.4 billion overall budget.

“The word ‘cut’ really shouldn’t be used here. ‘Reduction in the increase’ should probably be used,” he said.

Democrats, including Rep. Gail Mooney of Cummings, warned the cuts would fall on everyone from college students to parents on childcare assistance to those receiving in-home care services.

“I’m disappointed and I’m angry that our state is going to have to balance this book on the backs of our people. It’s not right,” she said.

Rep. Marvin Nelson of Rolla, who is running for governor, was among several Democrats who said the Legislature should have dug deeper into budgets and made more strategic cuts. He said the body couldn’t even make “a minimal investment” in opioid addiction services, referring to a failed Senate amendment that would have restored $237,500 to the Robinson Recovery Center in Fargo.

“This entire state is in crisis, and people are dropping dead. … They’re supposed to wait, but they and their families can’t wait anymore, and there’s others that are going to die, and we’re not going to be able to fix that retroactively,” Nelson said.

Carlson, saying “there’s no corner on compassion in this chamber,” highlighted a provision of the bill stating if additional revenues become available before January, the Legislature should consider restoring funds for behavioral health, autism and long-term care services early in the session.

“We’re not throwing anybody under the bus here,” he said, adding, “No matter which ones we picked, we’d have picked the wrong ones, because we’d have left somebody behind.”

The bill will leave the general fund with a projected ending fund balance of about $28,000 on June 30, 2017

The lone Republican to vote against the bill, Rep. Mark Dosch, R-Bismarck, who isn’t seeking re-election, said such a small ending fund balance scares him. He his amendment would have deepened the 2.5 percent cut to 5.95 percent, bringing the total cuts to 10 percent and leave a $50 million ending fund balance, but House appropriators refused to even entertain the amendment Wednesday.

“It’s backing us – you guys – into a corner. It’s backing the next governor who comes in into a corner,” Dosch said as Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Burgum stood at the back of the chamber.

In a statement released Thursday, Burgum said: “Today our state legislature took an important step that I am hopeful will ensure a balanced budget for the remainder of this biennium. When the legislature returns in January, additional challenges will need to be faced to ensure we fund our priorities while right sizing government. In the near term, the 2017-19 budget constraints will represent an opportunity to create innovative new solutions to old problems. Working together we can prioritize results and hold the line on how much we are spending.

“Looking long-term, we must foster innovation and entrepreneurship to grow and diversify our economy, deliver transparency and accountability within government, and treat taxpayers like the customers they are.”

The special session was just the 15th in the state’s 126-year history and the first since November 2011. Legislative Council estimated the three-day session would cost $174,000.