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Mike Jacobs: North Dakota lawmakers prepare for a special session

Legislative leaders hope to keep the special session strictly limited – both in time and topics. Chet Pollert of Carrington, the House Republican leader, wants the session done in a week. Others – perhaps more sanguine – believe it could take as much as twice that long.

Mike Jacobs, Grand Forks Herald columnist.

Higher education appears poised to do well at the special legislative session next week. The compromise reached between House and Senate earmarks $138 million for buildings on college campuses, including $50 million for the renovation of Merrifield Hall at UND. Bismarck State College gets $38 million and Minot State University $25 million.

Last winter’s regular session considered the Merrifield Hall project favorably; the windfall from federal COVID relief funds accelerated the project.

Conflicting claims on funds for campuses in Minot and Bismarck nearly derailed negotiations as senior members of the two appropriations committees, Rep Bob Martinson of Bismarck and Sen. Karen Krebsbach of Minot, insisted on buildings in their cities. The House had opposed the Minot building. The House blinked.

Child care initiatives fared much less well. Activists had suggested a total of $130 million for affordable child care – a number about halfway between the cost of college buildings and the costliest item on the list, a pipeline to bring natural gas from the Bakken oil field to eastern North Dakota. That’s Gov. Doug Burgum’s pet project.

Child care didn’t have such powerful advocates. The compromise – set to be incorporated into a bill draft this week – provides about $16 million for child care programs.


The biggest obstacle facing child care advocates was not sticker shock, however. Rather, it was the threat of continuing funding. The other big-ticket items are one-time expenditures. Republican legislators are deathly afraid of creating programs that have to be funded into the future.

Perhaps this creates, at long last, an issue Democrats can use to appeal to North Dakota voters. The data present a compelling case, the recurring nature of the funding notwithstanding.

Here’s a rundown, as provided by Kids Count North Dakota in an online posting dated Oct. 14:

  • The average North Dakota working family spends 13% of its budget to care for infants. That’s where the $130 million ask comes from. It’s 13% of the $1 billion in federal COVID aid money.
  • Fourteen of North Dakota’s 53 counties meet less than 60% of child care demand, and only about a dozen meet 100% – leaving counties short of child care.
  • Child care is expensive, and here another comparison with higher education is illustrative. Full-time care for infants ranges between $7,600 and $9,500. Tuition for a UND student is about $9,000.
  • Pay for child care workers is near poverty level. The median wage is $11.61 per hour, or about $24,000 a year.
  • Child care is almost nonexistent outside “business hours.” Only 4% of facilities are open evenings and 3% during weekends. Early mornings are better, with 25% of facilities open.

Kids Count made recommendations for what it said would be “affordable child care.” Among them were increased pay for child care workers, outreach to more children and eligible families, expanded programs in under-served communities, enrichments to Head Start and Early Head Start programs, grants to expand existing facilities and build new ones, public/private partnerships, and shared services so child care providers have better access to such business necessities as accounting, insurance, benefits and the like.
These suggestions may be presented at the Legislature, but they’re unlikely to be passed, given the commitment to one-time projects. Still, the special session can be a kind of platform to press for adequate care for the state’s children – a goal that should resonate with all North Dakotans

Legislative leaders hope to keep the special session strictly limited – both in time and topics. Chet Pollert of Carrington, the House Republican leader, wants the session done in a week. Others – perhaps more sanguine – believe it could take as much as twice that long.

The session faces a major distraction, a bevy of bills aimed at mask and vaccination mandates to fight the COVID pandemic. Members of the right-leaning Bastiat Caucus have scheduled a “We The People!” rally for Sunday, Nov. 7, the day before the special session begins. Their flyer announcing the event promises “Breaking information on what’s important in YOUR life like Medical Mandates/Passports/Freedom.” (Punctuation and capitalization follow the flyer.)

The flyer lists five speakers, all men and all among the most vocal of the Bastiats. Coincidentally, at least four of them may be imperiled by the legislative reapportionment plan that the special session will consider. It’s probably too late to make substantial changes, but there might be time to make substantial noise.



Rep. Bill Devlin published the Steele County Press in Finley for 36 years. He and his wife, Maggie, owned the newspaper in Cooperstown for a shorter period. They live in Finley.

Others err, too

The flyer for the Bastiat rally misspells the name of one of the speakers and makes him a member of the House rather than the Senate. I bring this to your attention to show that I’m a better editor of other people’s work than I am of my own, thus proving an old journalistic adage: Everybody needs an editor.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.

Related Topics: MIKE JACOBS
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