Amid so many conversations about the pandemic, the 2021 assembly of the North Dakota Legislature was a “remarkable session,” Gov. Doug Burgum said, including work done to maximize the state’s growing Legacy Fund.
Burgum, during a recent hour-long conversation with the Herald, said he has signed more than 500 bills from the recently completed session. He classifies the results of the 2021 gathering into two categories: “the noise” and “the signal.” He prefers to discuss the latter.
“I’ll (talk about) the signal, as opposed to a lot of the noise that was happening during the session. From a signal standpoint, there were really some significant things that were accomplished,” Burgum said. “There was so much noise going on around things like masks. … It really was a remarkable session, whether it was tax relief, diversifying the economy, cutting red tape, (Department of) Human Services, K-12, higher education, smart infrastructure or military friendliness.”
Among the accomplishments, according to the governor, was work related to the state’s $8 billion Legacy Fund, the growing savings account that draws tax dollars from North Dakota oil production.
A handful of Legacy Fund-related bills passed, including:
HB 1380: A plan to create a blueprint for spending Legacy Fund earnings going forward.
HB 1431: A plan that will boost infrastructure projects throughout the state.
HB 1425: A plan that sets targets for investing a greater portion of the Legacy Fund principal in North Dakota.
And as the governor touts the legislative work done to take advantage of the growing fund, at least three Grand Forks lawmakers who responded to a Herald survey agree.
“Use of the bonding bill to pay for major infrastructure needs,” said Rep. Mark Sanford, R-Grand Forks, when asked about the 2021 session’s top accomplishments. “ … Infrastructure needs are a very good place to utilize Legacy Funds now and going forward.”
The Herald asked local legislators to outline not only what they believe were the top accomplishments but also the top disappointments of the 2021 session.
Of the 12 surveyed, 10 responded: Rep. Zachary Ista, Rep. Mary Adams, Sen. JoNell Bakke, Sen. Ray Holmberg, Rep. Mark Sanford, Rep. Corey Mock, Rep. Steve Vetter, Sen. Scott Meyer, Rep. Claire Cory, and Sen. Curt Kreun.
Rep. Mark Owens and Rep. Emily O'Brien did not respond.
Rep. Mary Adams, Democrat
Legislature’s accomplishments: “Bill 1435, regarding insurance for families of first-responders. It was one of many bills to help all families, but this one is the only one to pass. Also, the requirement of Native American history to be taught in all North Dakota schools. It’s important for children to learn all aspects of history, not just what makes us look favorable.”
Disappointments: “Truly, it is hard to work with a supermajority and the Bastiat Caucus of the Republican Party. So many resolutions regarding the overreach of the federal government, but they want to control everything in counties, townships and cities. They don’t like ‘big’ government but they want to rule. Please don’t get me wrong: There are a lot of Republicans who also want to do what is best for all the citizens of North Dakota, but feel they have to vote certain ways on certain bills or they get censured by their districts.”
Sen. JoNell Bakke, Democrat
Legislature’s accomplishments: “The greatest accomplishment of the session, for me, was the passage of the Juvenile Justice Reform legislation (HB 1035). This bill was the most extensive rewrite of the laws for juveniles that the state has done in years. Most of the summer of 2020, I spent on teams working with a few other legislators and agency individuals around the state to rewrite and reorganize the code to better serve the young people in our state, providing them with a model that addresses their needs rather than punishing them for noncriminal activities that in the past have meant time in the court system. Now North Dakota will be providing the same level of support for juveniles that most other states have done for many years.”
Disappointments: “For me, the greatest disappointment was the time that was spent on pieces of legislation that focused on nonissues in the state, and there were many this session. These bills became distractions and kept us from doing the work that needed to be done in a timely fashion. Bills like the resolution to withdraw from the Equal Rights Amendment ratification. This bill did nothing as it is not possible to withdraw once the ratification is made by another legislative body.
“Another was the bill to hang framed copies of the Ten Commandments in classrooms. This is a violation of separation of church and state. It has been tried in the past and there are Supreme Court rules that state it is unconstitutional. There isn’t a school board in the state that would be advised by their attorney to support this practice. It would only bring a lawsuit.
“Finally, the bill to ban transgender females from playing in girls sports. This is discriminatory and would cost the state millions of dollars in lost revenue and lawsuits. This bill would have prevented some national organizations and our own North Dakota Activities Association from sponsoring tournaments in the state as this was in direct conflict with their own policies for inclusion of transgender athletes. All of these bills were sponsored only for the press they generated and not for their legislative value.”
Rep. Claire Cory, Republican
Legislature’s accomplishments: “The 67th Legislative Assembly had many historical accomplishments, thanks to Republican leaders around the state. Some of the greatest accomplishments this session had to do with constitutional freedoms. As a Legislature, we strengthened Second Amendment rights, protected free speech on college campuses, and reformed our state elections to be more safe, secure and innovative. Constitutional freedoms are important and as a policy legislator I am happy to say they were fought for.”
Disappointments: “My greatest disappointment was not passing the pension reform bill. Next session I am looking forward to working on legislation to protect future generations' hard-earned dollars.”
Sen. Ray Holmberg, Republican
Legislature’s accomplishments: “Balancing the budget and putting together a plan to utilize the Legacy Fund earnings in a responsible manner. That would top my list. The $70 million investment in career and technology education was a great win for students and the future workforce in North Dakota.”
Disappointments: “Not coming up with a concrete long-term plan to stabilize the state’s public employee’s retirement system (PERS).”
Rep. Zachary Ista, Democrat
Legislature’s accomplishments: “This session, the Legislature made important investments in North Dakota's future. Among these investments were using bonding for critical infrastructure and water projects, making sure the University of North Dakota continues to lead in the fields of aerospace and energy research, and expanding access to treatment programs for families struggling with addiction. These are the types of investments the North Dakota Democratic-Nonpartisan League Party has been advocating for years because we know they will help our state's families, students and businesses thrive.”
Disappointments: The 2021 session was a unique opportunity for lawmakers across the political spectrum to come together to make sure North Dakota emerges from the pandemic stronger than ever. Through a combination of favorable market conditions and increased federal investments in the national recovery, we had an opportunity to address both short- and long-term needs for our state's families and workers. But instead of having a laser-like focus on those priorities, a growing faction of Republicans lawmakers chose instead to push dangerous distractions based on nothing more than conspiracy theories circulating on social media. North Dakotans deserve better than that. That's why wasting our time on fringe issues rather than the kitchen table policies that really matter to North Dakotans was the most disappointing missed opportunity in the 2021 session.”
Sen. Curt Kreun, Republican
Legislature's accomplishments: "Having the opportunity to chair the Energy and Natural Resources Committee in the Senate, we put a lot of work into how to best utilize our natural resources that are afforded to us in North Dakota. We were able to make some policy changes in our committee to encourage all of our energy sources to be competitive while being environmentally friendly. That was a huge point we tried to work with. ... We have a lot of interest in our energy sector – not just oil, gas and coal, but we're looking at wind components, trying to incorporate some nuclear and the solar portion of it as well. We're trying to indicate that we can be very, very friend to our ecology and we're doing it. The Energy and Environmental Research Center at UND and other local people are leading the challenge in the U.S. and in the world."
Disappointments: "It's frustrating that some of our biggest bills come at the end, and you don't get to vet them very well. They get put into a catch-all and it doesn't give the policy people a lot of chance to go through and see the changes that have been made. They should have a higher degree of vetting before passing some of the largest bills during the session."
Sen. Scott Meyer, Republican
Legislature’s accomplishments: “Everyone knew going into this session that we as a state would have some unique challenges. Due to the pandemic, the Legislature had to identify different committee rooms that would allow people to social distance appropriately. This also brought video conferencing to our committee rooms, which allowed more people to participate remotely in the legislative process. In addition to the Capitol changes due to COVID-19, the Legislature passed policy that protects businesses from being liable due to the spread of coronavirus.
“Personally, I was a part of the Invest in North Dakota bill, HB 1425. This legislation’s intent is to direct 10% of the Legacy Fund to fixed income investments in North Dakota and an additional 10% toward equity investments in North Dakota. Many constituents have been asking that we invest more in North Dakota, and HB 1425 gives our state those opportunities to diversify and grow.”
Disappointments: “Even though the technology updates did make this session more accessible, there was still something missing. The in-person interaction is still a big part of the process, and I think many would agree that they missed that interaction this session. Being able to connect with a constituent after a hearing, asking for further clarification from a testifier, catching further details in the hallway, or the high school classes visiting the Capitol will all be welcomed back next session.
“However, enough can’t be said about the professionalism and adaptability of the legislative council, the I.T. Department, clerks, interns and other staffers that made the 67th legislative assembly a successful one.”
Rep. Corey Mock, Democrat
Legislature’s accomplishments: “There were a lot of accomplishments following the 2021 legislative session, especially for the Greater Grand Forks region. We made strategic investments in UAS, innovation and technology, energy and commercial research, infrastructure, and much more. It’s hard to single out an individual accomplishment knowing so many pieces are interconnected; prioritizing these investments is a win for our entire community and something we should be proud of.”
Disappointments: “Perhaps the greatest disappointment was the amount of time and energy spent on reactionary legislation – bills reacting to single events instead of establishing good public policy for the future.
“There’s room for constructive debate on public health policy, separation of powers and election procedures. Unfortunately, we spent so much time focused on isolated incidents revolving around mask mandates, executive order restrictions, vaccinations and the most recent election that we lost sight of the big picture.”
Rep. Mark Sanford, Republican
Legislature’s accomplishments: “Use of the bonding bill to pay for major infrastructure needs. Water projects included the Fargo flood diversion project, which frees regular budget money for several smaller projects from around the state which were behind Fargo. The bond payments will be made using Legacy Fund monies. Infrastructure needs are a very good place to utilize Legacy Funds now and going forward. Operating in a unique manner (during the pandemic) worked quite well. Kudos to the I.T. staff.”
Disappointments: “You always have a few issues that didn’t go your way, but they were overshadowed by the ability to successfully conduct business in a unique manner.
Rep. Steve Vetter, Republican
Legislature’s accomplishments: “We passed several bills that protect the civil liberties of North Dakota citizens. We helped veterans and the elderly all while funding the needs of the Grand Forks community.
Civil Liberties include First Amendment rights like freedom to worship, how you choose and freedom of speech on college campuses. Several bills dealing with Second Amendment rights and one bill with Fourth Amendment rights. Lastly, bills to help our veterans and elderly like the veterans’ court, disability exemptions and rights for residents of health care facilities (Grandma now has the right to Facetime, HB 1343).”
Disappointments: “The session was very different from previous sessions in that they were limited or no social events in which House and Senate members were able to talk about bills. From my perspective, I think this lack of communication between the chambers caused a lot of great bills to fail because of misinformation. Two bills I introduced that were popular among the people I talked to while campaigning this last election cycle were House Bills 1222 and 1198 but they ultimately failed in the Senate due to a lot of misinformation.
“Property rights bill 1222: The bill that protects property owners and would take away the city’s ability to zone a person out of their home failed in the Senate. Elections bill 1198 would have guaranteed one physical polling location per county on election day; it passed both chambers but then was reconsidered and failed in the Senate.”