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North Dakota Democrats unveil wish list for $1 billion in federal COVID-19 aid

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Rep. Joshua Boschee, D-Fargo, right, and Sen. Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford, discuss the Democratic-NPL Party's spending plan for North Dakota's $1 billion dollar share of federal American Rescue Plan coronavirus aid on Tuesday in Bismarck.

Democrats on Tuesday unveiled their spending plan for North Dakota's $1 billion share of federal American Rescue Plan Act coronavirus aid, what they called "nonpartisan ideas."

The Legislature plans to meet in a special session beginning Nov. 8 to decide how to use the money and to approve a redistricting plan. Supermajority Republicans call the shots in the Legislature, controlling the House 80-14 and the Senate 40-7.

House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, and Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford, outlined $507 million in infrastructure proposals, including $400 million for "shovel-ready," long-term projects and $7 million for public health workforce incentives; $400 million for child care, including $200 million for grants to build facilities on school grounds; and $100 million for state-administered paid family leave.

Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, is drafting a bill for the Democrats' proposal. 

Heckaman said child care is a top issue statewide, citing a community survey she participated in.

"The top one that kept coming up was child care because they can't address the (other priorities) until they address child care," the retired teacher said.

State agencies submitted proposals for the $1 billion to the Office of Management and Budget. The proposals totaled $4.76 billion. The Democratic-NPL leaders said they hadn't seen the list but had visited with Republican lawmakers and Gov. Doug Burgum's office about their ideas.

"I think we'll see a strong proposal from the governor's office related to child care and certainly of course infrastructure, so there is some common ground there," Boschee said.

Burgum is expected to release his proposal within the next two weeks, spokesman Mike Nowatzki told the Tribune on Tuesday.

Democrats have repeatedly proposed a state-run paid family leave program but have met with defeat each time, even in proposing to study the issue. Opponents said family leave is best left to the private sector.

The House and Senate appropriations committees will meet throughout October before the special session to review the governor's and lawmakers' proposals for using the Rescue Plan money.

How the money will be used must be decided by the end of 2024. It must be spent by the end of 2026.

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

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