BISMARCK — After nearly four months under the Capitol roof, North Dakota lawmakers have called time on a legislative session unlike any other.
The state House of Representatives adjourned sine die — Latin for "indefinitely" — at 12:17 a.m. Friday, April 30, and the Senate followed suit minutes later. House Speaker Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, led the lower chamber in the customary singing of "Auld Lang Syne," while Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford, who presides over the Senate, commended the group on its efficient work in the face of unusual challenges.
Lawmakers gaveled in 76 of the maximum 80 days, leaving just four to handle the legislative redistricting of the state in the fall and any emergencies that might arise.
In the waning hours of the biennial session, the Republican-dominated Legislature put the finishing touches on a record $16.9 billion two-year budget that includes federal money and coronavirus aid. The spending blueprint greatly exceeds the previous high of $14.7 billion that lawmakers approved in 2019.
The budget contains $5 billion of general fund spending, up 3% from 2019. Derived mostly from income, sales and energy taxes, the general fund is spent on a number of public programs, including K-12 education and human services.
Spending levels spiked and stayed up after the western North Dakota oil boom of the late 2000s flooded the state with cash. The COVID-19 pandemic walloped the oil industry and state revenues, but Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said budget writers were able to avoid making any major cutbacks by using federal coronavirus aid funds and more than $600 million in Legacy Fund earnings to balance the budget.
He said the boost in spending mostly appears in the state’s two largest budgets: the Department of Human Services and K-12 education. Lawmakers also approved a raise for state employees, including themselves.
On top of the budget, lawmakers passed a $680 million bonding bill that includes $435.5 million for the Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion project and funding for a handful of other infrastructure enterprises and repairs. The package draws on earnings from the state's $8.4 billion oil tax savings account, known as the Legacy Fund, to pay back the bonds to investors in 20 years or fewer.
The Republican leader said North Dakotans have “things to be excited about” coming out of the session. The Legacy Fund will be mobilized to invest in infrastructure, the state’s struggling coal industry will get economic relief and residents can expect the same government services without seeing their tax bills increase.
House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, said lawmakers “moved some big mountains” like the bonding bill, but he noted the state’s books were “saved by federal money.” He added that the Legislature spent too much time on “distractions” brought by extreme lawmakers, such as bills that barred state officials from requiring masks and restricted the participation of transgender athletes in K-12 sports.
For several days in the middle of the session, punishing former Rep. Luke Simons over sexual harassment allegations consumed and divided the House. In an unprecedented step, the chamber voted to expel the Dickinson Republican after several hours of intense debate. Boschee said he thinks lawmakers and others who work in the Capitol have been second guessing their poor behavior in light of Simons' ouster.
The COVID-19 pandemic hung over the session like a dark cloud, especially when lawmakers arrived in January. Though more citizens could engage virtually with the legislative process than ever before, lawmakers fought over mask requirements and other pandemic protocols.
Several legislators came down with the virus, but all recovered and emerged healthy — another major bright spot, Boschee said.
Due to virus prevention measures that discouraged school field trips and gatherings, the Capitol hallways felt eerily quiet during the session, Wardner and Boschee noted.
"Not having the Memorial Hall filled with different events every other day certainly impacts the levity around here — we get so serious," Boschee said. "I'm looking forward to next session when we're much more physically engaged with the public."