BISMARCK — Gov. Doug Burgum on Thursday, Sept. 30, urged North Dakota lawmakers to act quickly to invest the bulk of the state’s $1.1 billion cut of federal coronavirus relief into a raft of infrastructure and economic development initiatives.
The large injection of federal dollars, part of President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act, has been sitting unused in state accounts for much of this year, a financial strategy the governor said risks North Dakota missing out on potential returns in the face of high inflation.
“One of the reasons why it’s important for us to invest right now, is something that's looming at the doorstep,” said the second-term governor, who advocated against allowing the new “stacks and stacks of cash” to gather dust even as mounting inflation depresses its value.
Federal guardrails do not require the state to spend the new money until 2026, and the governor’s recommendation could face resistance from the state’s fiscally conservative Legislature when it reconvenes later this year. Lawmakers have a whirlwind schedule planned for their reassembly this November, when they will have to finalize the state’s redistricting process and could allocate part or all of the Biden administration’s stimulus money. Alternatively, Burgum could bring the Legislature back for a special session, which would give lawmakers more time to divvy up the influx of cash.
In his proposal Thursday, Burgum outlined hundreds of millions of dollars for workforce incentives, economic development and various infrastructure projects. Lawmakers already laid out designs for a large chunk of the $1.1 billion during their session earlier this year, leaving $697 million for lawmakers to still allocate.
Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said he liked many of the ideas Burgum brought to the table, but added that “the Legislature in the end has some good ideas, too, and they will be the ones who will be making the decision.”
Control over how the state spends these large federal cash injections has put the governor at odds with the Legislature at times during the pandemic, as many lawmakers wanted more say in the larger aid package that came into the state last year. The Legislature passed a law during the 2021 legislative session giving themselves more control over the purse strings even after the governor initially vetoed the proposal.
If the Legislature calls itself into session, it would have just four days left of its constitutionally allotted time to manage redistricting and decide what it wants to do with the latest stimulus money.
If Burgum calls lawmakers back into session to allow more time, the Legislature could stay active indefinitely, an outcome that the governor said would be a nonstarter. But if the governor’s office and legislative leadership can reach an agreement that a special session would be limited to dealing exclusively with the federal aid money, “then we have a real appetite for calling people back,” Burgum said.
That may not become an issue if the Legislature can accomplish everything on the timeline that Republican leadership is aiming for. Wardner said he believes lawmakers can handle everything on their plate with an intense four days in November.
On top of the stimulus appropriations already laid out by the Legislature, Burgum called Thursday for an additional $326 million for various workforce incentive programs, tuition support for early childhood education degrees and a new workforce development center at Bismarck State College. That cut also includes $100 million for the expansion of natural gas pipelines in central and eastern North Dakota.
He also recommended an additional $237 million for various infrastructure and capital improvements, including hundreds of millions for roads, bridges and water projects. Another $134 million would go toward broad health care and emergency response projects, which include cybersecurity enhancements to state systems and tens of millions for renovations to the state lab.
On top of his recommendations for the latest package of money from Washington, Burgum advocated for putting more than $400 million in surplus state revenues from the last two years into income tax credits, economic diversification and a state pension fund injection.
Of this last category, Wardner said he is “not really excited” about digging into state revenues.
Leadership in the Democratic-NPL Party unveiled their priorities for the special session last week, including hundreds of millions of dollars for infrastructure projects, and $100 million for a paid family leave program. North Dakota Democrats have pushed for paid family leave for years, but the idea has never found traction in the Republican-dominated Legislature.
The House and Senate appropriations committees are scheduled to meet this October to begin work on the unappropriated stimulus funds. Republican leadership has said the full Legislature will convene beginning Nov. 8 to tackle redistricting and decide what it wants to do with the federal coronavirus aid.
Readers can reach reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at email@example.com.