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North Dakota legislative leaders brace for pandemic in 2021 session

North Dakota legislative leaders brace for pandemic in 2021 session

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House on Day 76

North Dakota's House of Representatives prepares for its final hours of work and for representatives to leave Bismarck on April 26, 2019, when the Legislature finished its business and adjourned sine die.

It's unclear how North Dakota's 2021 Legislature will operate if the coronavirus pandemic persists, but state leaders have moved to ramp up remote capabilities and mitigate in-person risks.

The Legislative Procedure and Arrangements Committee on Wednesday unanimously approved using up to $1.25 million of the state's $1.25 billion federal CARES Act aid for upgrading House and Senate voting tally boards and enabling remote voting and uploading of committee testimony online. A dashboard for electronic signatures of bill co-sponsors also is forthcoming but isn't a new discussion.

In May, the committee of 10 Republican and Democratic-NPL floor leaders approved using up to $750,000 of CARES Act aid to expand livestreaming and remote capabilities of committee meetings. The goal is to have all of the technology upgrades in place by Oct. 31 to support a potential special session.

Federal aid boosts North Dakota Legislature's livestreaming plans
North Dakota Democrats call for special session; Burgum says one not needed

Republican majority leaders have refrained from calling a special session but have noted the need to be prepared. State officials have watched tax revenues plummet amid the pandemic, though overall revenues remain ahead of a 2019 forecast. The Legislature met in special session in 2016 to patch a $310 million budget hole.

Democrats have called for a special session for dividing the CARES Act money, to no avail.

'Making the sausage'

The 2021 Legislature is set to convene Jan. 5 in Bismarck after lawmakers' three-day organizational session in December.

The 141-member body has up to 80 days every two years to write new laws and budgets. Hundreds of people, from lawmakers to lobbyists, state officials to students, pack the Capitol for bill hearings and floor sessions.

The Legislative Council, the Legislature's staff of nonpartisan legal and fiscal experts, issued a May memo that the pandemic "presents an unprecedented challenge and may require the North Dakota Legislative Assembly to find new ways to conduct business during the next regular legislative session or a potential special session."

Leaders are hopeful for normalcy. 

"It is my intention, I sure hope we can meet face to face because I don't care if it's interim committees or if it's the legislative session or whatever session, I think our best action in, as they say, making sausage for legislation is when we're looking eye to eye at each other and not through this way," House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, said in the committee's videoconference meeting.

Governor's spokesman Mike Nowatzki said Gov. Doug Burgum and Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford, who are seeking reelection, have had "brief discussion" with legislative leaders about public health and safety measures for 2021, "and there seems to be a common goal to have an in-person regular session in some fashion in 2021."

"But what that will look like has yet to be determined, and ultimately it’s up to Legislative Management," Nowatzki said, referring to a powerful panel of lawmakers who guide the Legislature's work. 

'Plan B'

House Speaker Larry Klemin, R-Bismarck, distributed a memo to fellow legislative leaders Wednesday outlining items to consider in a "plan B," such as the legal justification for a remote session, how to satisfy quorum and open meeting requirements, and how to conduct remote roll calls and votes. Some of the matters already have been addressed.

"It's important that we know that when we get to session that we are doing it right," Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, told the committee. 

The 2021 Legislature also might consider a measure for voters in 2022 to change the constitution to specifically allow for a remote session. House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, advocates the Legislature meet to put a measure on the 2020 ballot for legislative flexibility, rather than have it voted on more than two years from now.

"We've learned in the last four months that's a long time," Boschee said.

The constitution does give the Legislature flexibility for emergencies rendered by disasters of an "enemy attack," but it's questionable if a pandemic applies.

"That was from the 1950s Cold War stuff," said Klemin, whose memo is meant to address legal questions of a remote session. The committee in September will revisit it for proposals and potential rule changes.

"It's pretty hard to sit down at the last minute and try to figure all that out," Klemin said. 

Capitol prep

Preparing the Capitol already is in motion.

Facility Management Director John Boyle said a number of measures are in place or in the works for 2021, including revamped cleaning procedures.

New is a cleaning worker contracted for $9,700 in CARES Act money on a trial basis for seven weeks specifically to sanitize common surfaces such as door handles in two passes from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday in the Capitol. Boyle noted the contractor began after a staff member left and has cost less money. Facility Management likely will continue the service, he said.

The Capitol grounds' bathrooms will have touchless fixtures in place by 2021, including urinals, toilets, sinks and paper towel dispensers, costing a little over $100,000, covered by CARES Act money. 

Boyle also received pricing from a contractor for ionizers to kill germs and viruses in the air. For as much as nearly $900,000, all Capitol grounds facilities could be outfitted, he said. Inquiries into that system are in an "infant stage" and need more research and discussion, he added. CARES Act money might be able to cover it, if requested. 

Klemin noted that a lot of state lawmakers are in vulnerable categories for the coronavirus, such as age and underlying conditions. 

"You shouldn't be expected to risk your life just to be a legislator, so we want to do the work that the people elected us to do but we want to be safe, too," he said.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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