BISMARCK — The North Dakota Emergency Commission voted on Monday, Aug. 3, to send out nearly $320 million in federal funds to state agencies, institutions of higher education and local governments for pandemic-related relief.
The Legislature's Budget Section will get an up-or-down vote on the distribution of funds at its meeting next week.
The meeting Monday marks the third time the commission has convened to carve up the $1.25 billion received by the state through a massive federal aid package known as the CARES Act. The state had previously approved the distribution of about $930 million, but up to $100 million of unspent funds could come back before the commission at its September meeting.
If approved by the Budget Section, Job Service North Dakota would receive the largest chunk of the newly distributed funding. The state agency would get $100 million to restore its unemployment insurance fund to pre-pandemic levels. Job Service, which has paid out unemployment benefits to thousands of residents during the pandemic, has already received $310 million of the federal funds for the same purpose.
Much of the remaining funds would go toward several state initiatives to boost COVID-19 testing as schools and colleges prepare to hold in-person instruction this fall.
The state Department of Health would get a $20 million allocation for testing within the North Dakota University System and $10 million for testing in the K-12 system. Another $7.5 million would go to tracing close contacts of people found to have COVID-19 in the state's educational institutions.
Gov. Doug Burgum, who chairs the commission, has frequently said expanding testing and contact tracing in schools and colleges will be a key part of returning students to classes.
Another $12 million of the health department's allocation would go toward contracting out testing to private labs to bring the state's capacity up by 1,000 tests per day. The health department and private labs currently have the capacity to process about 5,000 per day, but Burgum said the state is looking to expand to 8,000 per day in the next few months.
The health department would also receive $5 million to replenish its medical equipment stockpile and about $32 million to cover testing and laboratory costs that the Federal Emergency Management Agency may not take on as previously expected.
The state's 11 public universities and colleges would receive more than $17 million, most of which would go toward improving ventilation systems. The funds would allow the colleges and universities to install ionization equipment, which is thought to help purify air in indoor spaces where COVID-19 spreads more easily. The university system also made requests for other infrastructural and technology updates that never made it to the commission because the Office of Management and Budget rejected them.
About $59 million would go to local and county governments around the state for a variety of possible uses.
In previous meetings, the commission has approved more CARES Act funding geared toward economic relief than public health, but the emphasis on ramping up testing means 57% of the funds from the most recent round of allocations would go toward health initiatives. North Dakota has consistently ranked near the top in testing per capita, according to Johns Hopkins University, but growth in testing capacity has slowed over the last month.
Besides Burgum, the all-Republican Emergency Commission includes Secretary of State Al Jaeger and four legislative leaders.
Democratic lawmakers, who are frustrated with the process for distributing the federal dollars, have called for a special legislative session and submitted a funding proposal for establishing a sick leave fund, to no avail.