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North Dakota lawmakers compromise on proposal to spend hundreds of millions in federal coronavirus aid

The Senate and House Appropriation committees hit gridlock Wednesday night over a handful of items in a joint plan to spend the state's American Rescue Plan funds, but they smoothed things over the following morning.

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North Dakota Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, speaks at a bill signing on April 21, 2021, next to Gov. Doug Burgum, left, and House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — North Dakota budget writers reached an agreement Thursday, Oct. 28, on a proposal to spend nearly all of the state’s hundreds of millions of dollars in federal coronavirus aid at their reconvened legislative session next month.

Negotiations between the Republican-controlled House and Senate Appropriations committees hit gridlock over a handful of spending items Wednesday night after hours of closed-door negotiations between top lawmakers, but the two sides found a compromise the next morning.

“This was history. It actually went very well,” Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, told appropriators from his chamber on Thursday. “Yeah, we had a little road bump at the end, but we got through it.”

The version reached between the two committees would spend all but about $54 million of the state’s total $1.1 billion from the federal American Rescue Plan Act when lawmakers reconvene on Nov. 8. Several hundred million of the total sum will fulfill appropriations already established during the legislative session earlier this year, leaving about $700 million for lawmakers to distribute when they return to Bismarck.

Wardner and House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R- Carrington, both said the two committees agreed on almost all of the particulars, even as a few outstanding disagreements will be left to the reconvened session to settle. Wardner and Pollert stressed that the product approved Thursday is only the first version of a bill, which could change once the full Legislature gets a crack at it in less than two weeks.

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The proposal drafted Thursday will go to Legislative Management next week for introduction before the full Legislature during the November session days.

Thursday's agreement was the culmination of seven days of meetings over the last three weeks, in which budget writers heard close to 170 different pitches from lawmakers and state agencies on how to spend the federal cash injection, proposals that totaled north of $9 billion.

The budget list mapped out by the two committees targets investments in energy, infrastructure, health care and education projects. North Dakota has until 2026 to spend all of its federal funds, but Gov. Doug Burgum and many lawmakers have pushed to invest the money quickly.

Among the expenditures to make the cut Thursday were $25 million for congregate living facilities like nursing homes, tens of millions of dollars for childcare programs and millions for technical skills training and incentives to help recruit and retain workers.

Negotiations were waylaid Wednesday evening by two Senate proposals that didn't have support on the House side. One, which would put $25 million into an administrative and arts building at Minot State University, made it into the joint bill on Thursday, while the other, to add $30 million to an existing revolving loan fund for hospitals, didn’t make the cut.

Various higher education funding projects could be a point of issue among House lawmakers when the reconvened session begins in November, Pollert said.

The single largest project in the package is a Burgum-backed proposal to put $150 million into the construction of a trans-state pipeline to deliver natural gas from the Bakken oil fields to eastern North Dakota.

Many of the ideas proposed by the second-term Republican governor made it into the budget writers' package in some form, but the bill also includes a variety of specialty projects brought by lawmakers to boost their districts.

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Lawmakers are expected to have a rigorous schedule when they return to Bismarck next month.

If the Legislature calls itself back into session, they will have only four of their constitutionally allotted 80 days to decide what to do with the federal funds, to approve redistricting based on the 2020 census results and to handle a slate of unrelated bills, some of which deal with conservative social issues like vaccine mandates and critical race theory.

Republican leadership in the Legislature has been holding discussions with Burgum about the possibility of a special session that would have to be called by the governor and would allow the Legislature as much time as it needs to manage everything on its plate. Those talks are ongoing.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com .

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