EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is part of a series of stories that outline the priorities of Grand Forks lawmakers as they begin the 2021 session of the North Dakota Legislature.
Funding – whether in the form of legislation or as part of their committee assignments – is on the minds of District 17 lawmakers as they prepare to open the 2021 session of the North Dakota Legislature.
One member of the District 17 delegation, Sen. Ray Holmberg, is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and traditionally plays a large role in funding discussions. Meanwhile, Rep. Mark Sanford said the higher education funding formula will be among his top priorities in the coming months, and Rep. Mark Owens said he is looking forward to continuing work on K-12 funding.
All three are Republicans from Grand Forks. The session begins Tuesday, Jan. 5, in Bismarck, with the first day highlighted by Gov. Doug Burgum’s annual State of the State address, which will begin at 1:30 p.m.
It likely will be a unique session, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, whether it’s legislators wearing masks, finding larger committee rooms or having people being able to virtually give testimonies on a bill. The pandemic also looms over the budget, making an impact on the funds available to all state agencies.
The District 17 delegates all said they are looking forward to the session, even with the pandemic-related changes.
Holmberg said it will be important for legislators to take in all of the feedback and testimony, which will likely be increased due to the partly virtual nature of the session. However, there’s only so many hours in a day, so taking in all that testimony may be tough for legislators. Legislators should be fair when listening to both sides, he said.
Holmberg said the budget and everything else will come together and work out by the end of session.
“Those of us who've been around a long time know that at the end of the day, it will work out,” Holmberg said.
Legislators will have to make adjustments to whatever happens in the session, said Owens.
“There's about to be, if it's not already, a new normal and that's just the way it's got to be,” he said.
Holmberg has two bills he plans to bring to the floor, in addition to his typical work with the budget as Appropriations chairman.
One piece of legislation Holmberg plans to introduce deals with ballot measures and how changes to the North Dakota Constitution are presented to voters. Since 2014, the Legislature has placed eight measures on the ballot, most of which were defeated overwhelmingly by the voters. Holmberg said that’s due, in part, to a lack of consensus of legislators themselves.
Holmberg’s bill would require 60% of legislators to agree that the matter should go to the voters. It would then require 60% voter approval. The bill wouldn’t change the petition process.
“As the Legislature, (we should) quit complaining about the voters," he said. "Let's look at ourselves first.”
Holmberg also plans to bring a bill to the floor that would match a U.S. Supreme Court decision from July that requires electors to vote for the person they originally pledged for in a presidential election. If the candidate that elector pledged for loses in their state, then a new elector will be found.
This summer, Justice Elena Kagan said Electoral College delegates have "no ground for reversing" the statewide popular vote. Holmberg said his bill would line up with the Supreme Court decision from the summer.
A large chunk of Holmberg’s focus and work will be on the budget for the upcoming biennium. He said legislators will have to decide what role bonding could play for infrastructure projects.
Higher education funding will always be an important factor for Grand Forks, Holmberg said, and this biennium is no exception.
Rep. Mark Sanford, R-Grand Forks, who chaired the interim Committee on Higher Education, said the higher education funding formula will be among his top priorities. The funding formula allocates state dollars to institutions based on the number of credit hours each school completes, rather than per student. Sanford said legislators may discuss some changes with how those credits are weighted within the formula. Earlier this month, Gov. Burgum proposed a $31.6 million reduction in ongoing general fund appropriations in the next biennium. Included in that cut is a 7.5% reduction in the formula payment rate to higher education.
Related to higher education funding will be dollars associated with Challenge Grants. The program leverages private dollars by promising a partial state match. The state provides $1 for every $2 of private donations within a per-campus limit. The governor’s budget calls for increasing the program from $9.4 million to $20 million – $10 million from the general fund and $10 million from potential June 30, 2021, Legacy Fund earnings.
Sanford said other legislative priorities that will affect people locally include dollars related to bonding and other infrastructure projects and whether legislators will fund state employee raises in the next biennium.
Owens said right now he isn’t looking to sponsor any individual bills in particular, but he is looking forward to continuing work on K-12 funding.
Legislators have spent the better part of two sessions making adjustments to the funding mechanisms for K-12 education, Owens said. He said legislators want to get schools that aren’t currently off the formula onto it, and then come up with one that applies across the state. The funding formula guarantees equity across the region, Owens said, and helps ensure schools are funded despite their size or if they come from a “rich county,” where property values are higher, or a “poor county,” where those values run lower.
The funding formula was first introduced in 2013 and takes into account various factors, including student enrollment. It includes a per-pupil payment. Legislators spent last session making adjustments to when the payments are given to districts, but there’s still more work to be done, Owens said.
“We’re so close you can almost taste it,” he said.
For Grand Forks specifically, Owens still has his eye on education funding and finding the best ways to help ensure the district is funded for its needs.
“The cost will go up for the school district, and for the teachers, the (paraprofessionals), and the janitors and everybody that's involved,” he said. “The cost continues to rise.”