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House majority leader Rep. Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, center, and Rep. George Keiser, R-Bismarck, right, discuss legislation on the floor of the chamber with Rep. Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, left, and House minority leader Rep. Joshua Boschee, D-Fargo.

North Dakota lawmakers have a heavy agenda as they enter their final weeks of the legislative session.

Monday marks day 57 of up to 80 days to plan new policy and build the next two years' budgets. 

"Everything, in a nutshell, is moving at a fast pace," said House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington.

Moving along

Appropriation bills and conference committees will be the endgame, according to Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson.

Pollert said to expect, on Monday, House appointments to conference committees, which may meet as soon as Wednesday. Conference committees comprise House and Senate lawmakers who meet to hash out bills that have amendments from the second chamber not agreed to by the first chamber.

"That's where the rubber meets the road, where we really start making these bills into law," said Rep. Mike Nathe, R-Bismarck. 

Lawmakers have until April 5 to send bills and resolutions out of committees of the second chamber. About 140 bills were still in committees after Thursday's floor sessions, according to Legislative Council.

Among the heavier lifts are the state Water Commission budget, K-12 and higher education funding and the Office of Management and Budget, said Rep. Jeff Delzer, R-Underwood, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee. The state insurance, tax and transportation department budgets are also up there, he added.

"It's just mostly the bigger budgets," Delzer said. "And there aren't necessarily big differences in them."

Increases

"The big issue right now" is agreeing on increases for state employees' pay, Delzer said, as well as for K-12 per-pupil payments, higher education and disability and long-term care providers.

"If we can settle that, then it would go a long ways toward shortening the session," Delzer said. 

The Senate Appropriations Committee prefers 2 percent, then 3 percent increases in each of the next two years.

The House Appropriations Committee originally outlined 2 percent annual raises, but on Friday adopted an amendment for 2 percent — or about $120 to $200 more per month for state employees — and 2.5 percent increases, but leaving K-12 per-pupil payments at 2 and 2 percent increases, which Delzer said will also see other funding adjustments.

Democratic-NPL lawmakers have proposed 3 percent increases in each year of the 2019-21 biennium.

"The closer we can get to that 3 and 3 will make me very happy for the number of state employees we have here in the capital city," said Sen. Erin Oban, D-Bismarck.

State employees did not receive raises from the 2017 session, but the Legislature did meet a $45 million increased cost of health care.

House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, said he senses agreement from both chambers, both parties and Gov. Doug Burgum to provide pay raises.

On the agenda

Nathe, Wardner and other legislators point to "Operation Prairie Dog" as one big success of the 2019 session thus far.

Burgum signed off on the plan, which will send up to $250 million in oil tax revenue every two years for infrastructure projects in North Dakota's cities, counties, townships and airports. 

But Wardner said there's still work to do for infrastructure.

The House last week killed his bill for a low-interest revolving loan fund supplementary to "Operation Prairie Dog." Wardner said he'll try to keep the idea alive in the Senate.

And there's support for unmanned aircraft at Grand Sky near Grand Forks, from cropland imaging to flying power lines and pipelines.

"I see this as a huge thing for the state of North Dakota to have this industry here," Wardner said.

There also are water projects to iron out, such as flood control, Pollert said. Nathe said the water budget brings almost $900 million for communities statewide. 

"We have to look at it from the whole state perspective, not just from the eastern part of the state," Pollert said. 

Lawmakers also have major legislation before them to finalize to enact the mandates of Measure 1's anti-corruption initiatives.

And Wardner and Boschee pointed to tackling North Dakota's workforce shortage, which Boschee said may be better addressed from potential employees' perspective.

Certain legislation has "concerned" him on workforce, he said, such as failing to pass prohibitions on sexual orientation discrimination, and a prohibition on local governments from increasing the minimum wage.

Workforce development may leave some unfinished business this session, Wardner said. North Dakota has about 30,000 open jobs, by Gov. Burgum's estimate.

"Workforce is key," Wardner said.

Oban said she sees more to do for education, a priority Democrats outlined in December.

"We know that the greater support the state provides in funding schools, the less pressure that puts on property taxpayers," Oban said.

And there's the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library proposed by Burgum. 

A Senate appropriations subcommittee on the state Department of Commerce budget would address amendments to plan the library, for which the governor has proposed $50 million in Legacy Fund earnings with $100 million in donations. 

Lawmakers' legislative days extend to May 2. The 2017 session used 77 days.

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Reach Jack Dura at 701-223-8482 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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