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Funding and collaboration priorities for Grand Forks legislators

Left to Right, Mark Sanford, Jake Blum, Emily O'Brien, Scott Meyer, Steve Vetter, Curt Kreun, Ray Holmberg, Mary Adams, Matt Edison and JoNell Bakke. Photo by Will Kincaid for the Herald

They've heard requests from city leaders, state agencies and the governor —now, it's time for lawmakers from Grand Forks to leave and represent their constituents in Bismarck.

Before the 66th Legislative Assembly began on Thursday legislators new and returning said they look forward to matters in education, workforce, local infrastructure and quality of life for local military personnel and public employees.

"It will be an interesting session and hopefully we can get done and everyone will be satisfied that we did the best we could," said Sen. Ray Holmberg of District 17.

'Strive for consensus'

Holmberg, a Republican, said he will spend the new session working to facilitate agreement.

"One of my goals has always been to strive for consensus," he said. "We certainly achieved it two years ago, in my opinion."

Holmberg, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, said committee members unanimously passed 43 out of the 49 agency budget bills it received in the last session. This year, the chairman said his committee will focus on keeping a balanced budget that supports the Legislature's current priorities.

"And that we save some money and we replenish some of our rainy day funds that were spent in the last session," he added.

One area of potential disagreement is over a legislative proposal that would call for using up to 15 percent of the Legacy Fund's principal to fund local infrastructure projects with low-interest, revolving loans.

While presenting his budget in December, Gov. Doug Burgum reported the fund currently has a nearly $6 billion dollar principal, earning approximately $300 million in interest. The governor recommended spending that money on one-time projects that will have a "lasting impact" on citizens statewide.

Rep. Mark Sanford, a Republican from District 17, said he supports tapping the principal for the development it could promote in North Dakota communities.

"Why not lend it to North Dakotans?" Sanford said. "And because it's North Dakota, why couldn't we give them a little bit of a better rate?"

Sen. JoNell Bakke, a Democrat in District 43, said she likely won't budge from her stance of staunch opposition.

"I think we need to leave that there so it does what it was intended to do," she said. "We want to build interest."

Governor's budget

Being a former superintendent of the Grand Forks School District, Sanford said he is eager for an increase in K-12 funding. Sanford sits on the House Appropriations Committee as a member of the Education and Environment subcommittee, where this session he said he will help flesh out Gov. Burgum's request to increase school funding by 2 percent each year of the biennium.

North Dakota schools receive funding based on a per-pupil formula. Burgum's proposal will change the amount schools receive per student from $9,464 to $10,036 by 2021.

Rep. Mark Owens, another District 17 Republican, chairs the House Education Committee. After spending the last session staving off budget cuts, Owens said the proposed increase will amount to "just pennies statewide" as education costs continue to rise.

Rep. Jake Blum, a Republican in District 42, said he was "heartened" to see Burgum request $30 million toward unmanned aerial system infrastructure that will allow for more beyond-line-of-sight operations of unmanned aircraft in North Dakota.

In August 2018, Secretary Heather Wilson of the Air Force was at the Grand Sky unmanned aircraft park near Grand Forks Air Force Base for the first beyond-line-of-sight operation of a large unmanned aircraft.

"Our administration here and our state want to support it and it's time that we do that and ensure North Dakota is the global leader in UAS technology," Blum said.

Before the governor announced his budget, Republicans announced in the summer they were working on an effort that will give eastern North Dakota money for infrastructure, an effort legislators have since dubbed the Prairie Dog Bill.

"(It's) mostly (for) roads but it also looks at water infrastructure needs throughout Grand Forks, said District 42 Republican Sen. Curt Kreun, who supports the bill.

Democratic Rep. Corey Mock, District 18, is co-sponsoring the same bill, demonstrating a strong bipartisan support for promoting development in non-oil-producing North Dakota communities. He said legislators hope to wrap up their proposal by the end of April.

Workforce incentives and veterans

Democrat and District 43 Rep. Matt Eidson, who served in the Marine Corps before studying at UND, is looking into a bill that will let the G.I. Bill cover some of the costs North Dakota flight students need to obtain their appropriate licensure. Eidson said this incentive will be contingent on the commitment that veterans stay and work in the state after graduating.

Republican Rep. Steve Vetter from District 18 is the primary sponsor for a bill aiming to reduce income taxes on benefits for veterans.

Sen. Scott Meyer, another District 18 Republican, said he plans to bring forward a bill that will ensure occupational licensure reciprocity for military spouses licensed in other states.

"The reason why this is a big issue is secretaries of the U.S. Air Force, Army and Navy have come out stating they're looking at quality of life when they look at future missions for an Air Force Base or base retention," Meyer said. Making it easier for qualified spouses to find work in Grand Forks will ensure families are meeting their full earning potential, he added, and it's more likely they'll stay and contribute to the state's economy.

That's the main reason why Vetter has pre-filed his bill, he said, calling both his and Meyer's bills "workforce initiatives."

"We're trying to fill all of these jobs, and one of the ways to fill a lot of them is with veterans," Vetter said.

Collaboration

It was a significant year for the Democratic-NPL in Grand Forks, who in 2018 turned District 43 completely blue and removed two Republican incumbents.

After losing her bid for re-election in 2010, State Sen. JoNell Bakke returned and won the last election with 52.59 percent of the vote.

Bakke is one of five new Democrats elected to the Legislature in 2018. She will be one of 10 Senate Democrats total, whereas in 2007 she was one of 21.

"We had to work together because we needed each other to get anything to pass," she recalled. "Now I'm sitting here and there are 10 of us."

Rep. Mary Adams won by the most votes out of the four candidates running for the North Dakota House in District 43. The nearest candidate to her, Eidson, was 336 votes behind.

Republicans outnumber Democrats 79 to 15 in the state House.

Despite that, all three of the newly elected democrats in District 43 said so far the Legislature has been welcoming.

"I was surprised because they've been very, very warm," Bakke said of legislators from other districts and parties.

Mock has discussed forming a bipartisan leadership caucus that will look beyond party lines and encourage legislators to collaborate. He announced in December he was stepping down as House Minority Leader to focus on a more bipartisan role.

"I'm just physically exhausted by the vitriol that comes from national politics," said Mock from District 18.

Rep. Emily O'Brien, R-Grand Forks, did not respond to the Herald's requests for comment. She represents residents of District 42.

Emily Allen

Allen joined the Grand Forks Herald to cover local government and politics May 2018. Call her at 701-780-1102, email her at eallen@gfherald.com or follow her on Twitter, @Emily_theHerald.

(701) 780-1102
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