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Dalrymple rejects Democrats' request for special session

BISMARCK - Gov. Jack Dalrymple on Tuesday rejected a request from Democrats to call lawmakers back to Bismarck to undo $50 million in recent budget cuts, saying it's unnecessary and the budget plan for the coming year is "just fine."Democrats sen...

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Gov. Jack Dalrymple on Monday, Feb. 1, 2016. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune
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BISMARCK – Gov. Jack Dalrymple on Tuesday rejected a request from Democrats to call lawmakers back to Bismarck to undo $50 million in recent budget cuts, saying it’s unnecessary and the budget plan for the coming year is “just fine.”
Democrats sent a letter to Dalrymple last week asking him to call a special session so lawmakers could take a more strategic approach to budget cuts made in February and prompted by a projected $1.07 billion revenue shortfall brought on by low crude oil and farm commodity prices.
Dalrymple said he spoke with both the GOP majority and Democratic-NPL minority leaders, telling them a special session isn’t needed.
“We have a plan that will carry us through this year I think just fine, and everyone is telling me that the real decisions to be made are about the ongoing budget going on into 2017-19,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks, said Democrats agree the state needs to tighten its belt.
“But we want to tighten our belt in a way that makes strategic sense, and a lot of these cuts just don’t,” he said.
Democrats had proposed using reserve funds to restore about $50 million of the $245 million cut from agency budgets as part of a 4.05 percent allotment ordered by Dalrymple on Feb. 1.
The bulk of the money, $39 million, would have gone to the Department of Human Services to undo cuts to behavioral health services, child care assistance grants, inflationary increases and Medicaid fee schedules.
Dalrymple said he pointed out to Democrats that almost all of cuts were to new or expanded programs that aren’t scheduled to begin until after the second year of the 2015-17 biennium begins July 1.
“The thinking on the part of DHS is that it was just better to postpone something that had not been started yet rather than just reduce an existing program,” he said.
But Schneider said while that’s true for some programs, the cuts resulted in 500 families losing their eligibility for the child-care assistance program, in a change estimated to save DHS about $5 million. And additional funding withdrawn for the Robinson Recovery Center in Fargo will make it harder to keep up with demand for addiction recovery services as heroin use rises, he said.
“It saves lives, and when it has less funding, it’s less effective,” he said.
Dalrymple said nursing home and health care administrators told him their top priority is a state budget that sustains existing programs.
Schneider said the special session was a chance for the governor to “bail out” the Legislature whose GOP majority failed to save legislative days at the regular session in case they needed to make budget adjustments. The across-the-board cuts will cost tens of millions of dollars in federal matching funds for health care providers, long-term care facilities and centers that assist people with developmental disabilities, he noted.
“Those are cuts that I don’t think any sensible legislator would have voted for if we had been in session,” he said.
Democrats also wanted to restore $10 million to fully fund the $250 million approved for the state’s 12 percent property tax buydown program. But Dalrymple said the roughly $240 million remaining for property tax relief after budget cuts should still be enough to cover the buydown.
“That’s not a problem,” he said.
Schneider isn’t so sure, saying that with property valuations coming in higher than expected this spring, “it seems just as likely that we will not have the money to cover it, and that creates some uncertainty for homeowners and local governments.”
Dalrymple noted the state will get its first look at projected revenues for 2017-19 in the August forecast, and the Legislature could always decide to fund a specific urgent need during its organizational session in December, when lawmakers will receive the governor’s proposed budget.

State agencies will receive their budget guidelines for 2017-19 later this month. Office of Management and Budget Director Pam Sharp has said they will be directed to prepare reduced budgets, but it’s unclear by how much.

“It’s going to be a big, big challenge, there’s no question about it. I would not want to diminish the challenge that we face,” Dalrymple said.
But he added there are “things that we can propose that we have not done in the last several biennia,” such as tapping reserves and other sources of revenue – including possibly the earnings from the state’s Legacy Fund, though that hasn’t been decided, he said.
One thing is certain, he said: “We will not propose any general fund tax increases.”
A special session would have cost an estimated $80,000 per day and would have had to last at least three days to get a bill passed, according to Legislative Council. The Legislature has been called into special session 14 times since statehood, most recently in November 2011.
Dalrymple also rejected Democrats’ request for a special session in 2014.

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