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North Dakota commission approves distributing $400 million for COVID-19 response

The Legislature's Budget Section will get an up-or-down vote on the distribution of funds at its meeting next week.

042719.N.FNS.ENDSESSION2 John Hageman photo
North Dakota Republican Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, right, listens while Gov. Doug Burgum speaks during a bill-signing ceremony at the state Capitol on April 26, 2019. Forum News Service file photo
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BISMARCK — The North Dakota Emergency Commission voted on Thursday, June 18, to send out more than $400 million in federal funds to 40 different state agencies and institutions of higher education working on the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Legislature's Budget Section will get an up-or-down vote on the distribution of funds at its meeting next week.

The funds the commission approved for spending Thursday represents about a third of the funds received by the state through a massive federal aid package known as the CARES Act. The commission and Budget Section have already approved the distribution of about $525 million of the state's $1.25 billion in CARES Act funding, but Office of Management and Budget Director Joe Morrissette said a significant amount already allocated to the Bank of North Dakota may be redistributed if it's not all used.

About three-quarters of the funding approved Thursday would go toward economic support for businesses and individuals in the state, while most of the remaining funds would go toward providing protective equipment, cleaning supplies and remote working equipment to state agencies.

If approved by the Budget Section, Job Service North Dakota would receive the largest chunk of the funding at $200 million, which will be used to keep its unemployment insurance fund above water until September. The state agency, which has paid out unemployment benefits to thousands of residents during the pandemic, received $110 million last month for the same purpose.

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The second biggest piece of the pie would go to the Department of Commerce, which would receive nearly $69 million to implement a new grant program for businesses. The program would allow businesses in the state to apply for grants up to $50,000 to pay for protective equipment, cleaning supplies and other coronavirus-related costs.

If the funds get the green light, Commerce Commissioner Michelle Kommer said businesses could begin applying in late July and potentially receive grants as soon as September. Kommer said business owners keep telling her they don't need more loans, but rather the return of customers. She said the grants would help businesses reopen their workplaces to customers and employees.

The Emergency Commission approved more than $40 million in funding to the state's university system, including $19.8 million to North Dakota State University and $13.6 million to the University of North Dakota. Most of the funds would be used to buy equipment that would allow students to access their classes online, while the rest of the money would be used for protective equipment and cleaning supplies.

The Industrial Commission's Oil and Gas Division would get about $33.2 million in funding as part of a two-part plan to fund the plugging and reclamation of abandoned oil wells. The plan is meant to keep several hundred workers employed during turbulent times in the Oil Patch.

Gov. Doug Burgum, who chairs the Emergency Commission, reiterated that the state is fortunate to be in a position to dedicate most of the money to economic relief, rather than public health. He said many states with more severe outbreaks of COVID-19 have had to use most of their cut of the federal funding to shore up testing and other health-related operations.

Nearly 3,200 residents of the state have tested positive for the illness and 75 have died, but North Dakota ranks among the top states in the country in testing per capita and has maintained plenty of hospital capacity throughout the pandemic.

Besides Burgum, the all-Republican Emergency Commission includes Secretary of State Al Jaeger and four legislative leaders. The commission has its next scheduled meeting in September, but Burgum speculated there may be a need to gather sooner than that to evaluate more requests for coronavirus-related funding.

The state's Democratic-NPL Party called for a special legislative session Wednesday in part because it felt the decisions on how to use the federal funds were not fair or democratic. Republican leaders, who hold the authority to call a special session, rejected the move as unnecessary.

Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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