North Dakota legislative leaders pitch interest-free loans for federal workers affected by shutdown

The North Dakota Capitol in Bismarck. Photo illustration by Troy Becker

BISMARCK — North Dakota legislative leaders have introduced a bill that would require the state-owned bank to provide interest-free loans to federal workers affected by the partial government shutdown.

Senate Bill 2357 was introduced ahead of a deadline for submitting bills Monday, Jan. 21. It requires the Bank of North Dakota to expedite the "short-term loans and make the loans regardless of credit history."

Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, a Republican who co-sponsored the legislation, said a hearing could be scheduled as early as this week. He said it would go through a normal legislative process but at a quicker pace.

The bill is an emergency measure, meaning it would take effect as soon as Gov. Doug Burgum signs it if passes both the House and Senate by a two-thirds vote. The Republican governor, who chairs the three-member Industrial Commission that oversees the bank, generally doesn't comment on bills until they reach his desk, a spokesman said.

The bill was drafted by Rep. Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, but was introduced in the Senate by the majority and minority leaders from both chambers. The House's deadline for introducing bills passed last week.

"It's something to let those people know ... that we appreciate them being here, we appreciate them for the work they do," Wardner said, noting that some federal workers are "up against a wall" financially. "They got bills to pay and they can't pay them."

Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford, said the bill is a way for the Legislature to help workers hurt by a shutdown that's "not their fault."

Roughly 800,000 federal employees across the country are on unpaid leave or working without getting paid while President Donald Trump and Democrats in Congress haggle over funding his long-promised wall along the Mexican border. According to the Washington Post, 2,400 of the workers are in North Dakota.

The month-long shutdown became the longest in the country's history more than a week ago.

Tony Rowe, a Bureau of Indian Affairs representative for the Federation of Indian Service Employees who lives in Fort Totten, said the proposed loans could be helpful but expressed frustration over the shutdown. He said the stress is "wearing" on employees.

"We work for our money and we shouldn't have to go into debt ... because of what's going on in D.C.," Rowe said. "Our employees are dedicated employees. They deserve the pay that they're working for."

Bank of North Dakota President and CEO Eric Hardmeyer didn't respond to an inquiry about the legislation.