BISMARCK — After weeks of closed-door talks with top Republican lawmakers, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum called a special session Friday, Oct. 29, for the Legislature to manage redistricting and the hundreds of millions of dollars the state has received in federal coronavirus aid.
State lawmakers were already planning to return to Bismarck next month for a reconvened session of some form, but Republican leadership in the Legislature had been pushing for the governor to initiate a special session to ensure enough time for the lawmakers to handle their ambitious to-do list.
Under the special session, which Burgum called by executive order, lawmakers will report to Bismarck on Monday, Nov. 8, with legislative leadership hoping to contain their business to just five days by working from early mornings into the evenings to get the job done.
Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, and House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, thanked Burgum at a joint news conference on Friday for the added time and flexibility that the special session will allow, and touted common ground with the Republican governor on the federal coronavirus relief plan.
“There is gnashing of teeth, privately and publicly, but that’s the way this process works,” said Pollert, who said the Legislature and executive branch have overcome their differences to ensure a smooth process.
Among the tasks in front of the Legislature for the special session, lawmakers are looking to manage two heavy lifts in addition to a flurry of unrelated proposals. They plan to divvy up the state’s $1.1 billion in federal aid out of the American Rescue Plan Act, and approve new legislative districts based on the 2020 census results, a constitutionally mandated task that will shape the playing field of North Dakota politics over the next decade.
Members of the House and Senate Appropriations committees drafted a bill this week that would spend nearly all of the state’s federal coronavirus relief funds immediately. Burgum called the budget writers’ spending plan “a really great starting point” on Friday and said he is about “80% in agreement” with what they have drafted up.
Several hundred million dollars of the total $1.1 billion are already slotted to fulfill appropriations made during the legislative session earlier this year, leaving about $700 million for lawmakers to work with next month. The proposal drafted this week by the budget writers targets one-time investments in energy, infrastructure, health care and workforce development.
When the Legislature gavels in this November, it will mark the 16th time in North Dakota history that lawmakers have returned to Bismarck under a special session. Governors have convened special sessions to approve new legislative districts the previous three times the U.S. Census Bureau released new population data, dating back to 1991.
But Burgum held out on convening the special session over the last month. Asked about what changed between the two sides during their talks over recent weeks, Wardner told reporters that he would "rather not answer."
But the Senate leader added later that there was no bargaining between the legislative leaders and Burgum. He explained that the governor was more concerned about a special session running for weeks on end, a prospect that the legislative leaders said they don’t want, either.
Burgum has called for legislators to put hundreds of millions of dollars out of the state's budget surplus into two-year income tax relief, but Wardner and Pollert said Friday they would prefer to hash out possible longer-term tax changes during a full session.
Under a special session, lawmakers will have as much time as they need to handle everything on their plate, and all bills passed by the Legislature will go into effect immediately after getting the governor’s signature.
Had Burgum withheld a special session, the Legislature would have had only four of its allotted 80 days to complete its agenda, and approved legislation would have required 90 days to go into effect unless passed with an emergency clause, which requires a two-thirds majority.
On top of the American Rescue Plan funds and redistricting, lawmakers are also expected to manage a slate of unrelated bills some of which deal with conservative social causes like vaccine mandates and critical race theory. John Bjornson, director of Legislative Council, the Legislature’s nonpartisan research arm, said there have been 21 additional bills submitted on the House side and five on the Senate side.
Those proposals will have to be introduced through a delayed bills committee.
Burgum declined to comment on how he would handle such proposals if they come to his desk, but Pollert and Wardner said they think bills opposing vaccine mandates and critical race theory should get their say on the floor.
Readers can reach reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at email@example.com.