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As state eyes federal COVID windfall, what’s coming to Grand Forks?

"Whenever there’s some money, there will be some give-and-take. But I think at the end of the day, you know, we’ve only got so much,” state Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, said.

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The North Dakota Capitol building in Bismarck. North Dakota Tourism photo
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There’s a lot of money to be spent in Bismarck, and not an awful lot of time to spend it. And in Grand Forks, that means yet another burst of hope that state money will get funneled to something on its wish list, from traffic projects to expensive prep for welcoming heavy industry.

State legislators are expected to return to Bismarck for a brief session Nov. 8, when they’ll dole out $700 million in unspent coronavirus aid – left over from a $1.1 billion disbursement in the American Rescue Plan Act, portions of which have already been appropriated. They're also expected to grant approval to North Dakota’s newly drawn political districts, though far less debate is expected on those maps.

Legislators already are beginning a whirlwind push, starting in committee meetings that are expected to culminate in a final spending plan next month.

“The family is getting together. The estate has been opened, and there’s some money there. Whenever there’s some money, there will be some give-and-take. But I think at the end of the day, you know, we’ve only got so much,” state Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, said. “By the time we get done, we’ll probably spend all of it.”

Documents prepared this month by the Legislative Council indicate Grand Forks has been nominated to receive funding for at least two big projects: $5 million for reconstruction of UND’s apron at Grand Forks International Airport, and $45 million for the long-touted underpass at 42nd Street and DeMers Avenue. The same list suggests UND get funding for capital projects, for a “Center for Space Education and Research” and more.

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State leaders, though, already began meeting this week, and are now eliminating the vast majority of the reportedly $9 billion list of suggested projects. It’s not clear what will be left at the end of the process.

RELATED: North Dakota lawmakers mull array of pitches for $700M in federal coronavirus aid

Rep. Zack Ista, D-Grand Forks, points to his party’s own wish list, including a wide range of infrastructure projects, child care spending and a family leave fund. He said he’s open to local spending on big projects at UND and beyond, too.

“We’re seeing an interesting process. I think everybody’s getting a little bit of a behind-the-curtain peek at how the sausage gets made,” Ista said of the rush to allocate spending.

But, he argues, this is a better way to do things than to leave decisions up to a small, core group of state leaders, as was done in earlier phases of the pandemic by the state Emergency Commission, before the Legislature changed the process for spending large amounts of federal federal funding.

State Rep. Mark Sanford, R-Grand Forks, has been one of the legislators involved in the early spending process. In an interview this week, he stayed diplomatic, declining to tout any particular project. He said whatever the money goes toward, he’s generally looking for a one-time windfall of federal funding to go to one-time expenditures.

“Starting something new, or even adding something that could have a lifetime that continues beyond this, there’s got to be some real clarity that this is one-time,” Sanford said. “That’s an overriding principle of the final decision that we’ll make.”

The Legislature has only a few weeks before it reconvenes.

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“It’s a balancing act,” Holmberg said. “And that’s what the Legislature is. It’s a balancing act.”

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