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North Dakota lawmakers wrap 2019 session with officials expecting record total budget

North Dakota Republican Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, right, listens while Gov. Doug Burgum speaks during a bill signing ceremony at the state Capitol Friday, April 26, 2019. John Hageman / Forum News Service1 / 2
North Dakota Republican House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, right, listens to House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Delzer before a committee meeting Friday, April 26, 2019. John Hageman / Forum News Service 2 / 2

BISMARCK — North Dakota lawmakers put the finishing touches on the 2019 session Friday night, April 26, after finalizing a batch of budget bills that were poised to cement the largest total state budget in history.

The 2019-21 general fund budget was north of $4.8 billion, part of a nearly $14.7 billion total spending plan, which includes federal money. The latter figure would beat the record of $14.2 billion in the 2015-17 budget cycle, according to figures provided by the Office of Management and Budget.

The record general fund budget was set during the 2013-15 biennium at almost $6.9 billion.

The Senate wrapped its work just after 10 p.m. and the House followed suit a few minutes later on the 76th day of the session, which was limited to 80 days.

The session found the Republican-controlled Legislature on better financial footing than recent years, when a drop in tax revenue prompted several rounds of belt-tightening. State employees who went without raises during the current budget cycle will see pay bumps in the upcoming biennium, which starts July 1, and payments to K-12 schools were expected to grow alongside increases in higher education funding.

"We were coming out of a downturn (and were) cautious to make sure we can continue with any ongoing costs," said Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson.

The state's largest agency, the Department of Human Services, was expected to see an 18% boost in total funding to $4.1 billion, according to the OMB. House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, said that was partly due to continuing Medicaid expansion.

Pollert said lawmakers approached state spending "fairly."

Wardner acknowledged lawmakers struggled to come to a consensus on how to use earnings from the state's oil tax piggy bank known as the Legacy Fund. They ultimately set aside money to balance the books, replenish a constitutional education fund and boost a rainy day fund.

Wardner said lawmakers will study uses of the Legacy Fund before the 2021 session.

After signing legislation dedicating funding for his prized Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Friday, Republican Gov. Doug Burgum said the Legislature "took care of the priorities that were important to the state of North Dakota," including behavioral health, education and infrastructure.

"We're at a time of abundance in North Dakota, and there was some smart, sound policy advanced across a number of areas and some ... fiscally smart increases in places where we had needs and could make a difference," he said.

The frenzied four months of legislating saw lawmakers consider hundreds of bills and resolutions changing state laws, spending taxpayer money and offering changes to the state's constitution. They approved about 59% of the nearly 1,000 bills and resolutions introduced, according to figures provided by Legislative Council.

Lawmakers wrestled with and eventually approved the implementation of new constitutional ethics rules, adjusted a tribal oil tax revenue sharing agreement and ended the ban on Sunday morning shopping. But they again rejected legislation banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and turned down a proposal to buy down income taxes using Legacy Fund earnings.

House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, lamented that the Legislature restricted local government authority in some areas and fell short on workforce development issues like paid family leave and early childhood education.

"We can't change the weather, but we can change our policies and try to make things more comfortable for (workers) who want to stay here and those who want to move here," he said.

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