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Bills opposing critical race theory, vaccination mandates advance in North Dakota special session

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Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Fargo, introduces a bill to members of the Delayed Bills Committee at the state Capitol in Bismarck on Monday prohibiting the teaching of critical race theory in North Dakota's public schools. The bill passed through the committee with a 3-2 vote.

North Dakota lawmakers on Monday advanced bills on culture war issues as they began a special session aimed at reapportioning state legislative districts and formulating a plan for spending $1 billion in federal coronavirus aid.

That means in addition to the main scope of the session, lawmakers also will be debating whether to ban or restrict vaccination requirements and the teaching of so-called critical race theory.

Republican majority leaders have said they hope for a five-day session, though they acknowledge it might take more than a week, even with committees working into the evenings, potentially resulting in 12-hour days.

Had Gov. Doug Burgum not called a special session, lawmakers would have been restricted by the state constitution to the four days left over from their regular session earlier this year. Because of the governor's action, they can meet as long as needed.

Thirty-six organizations including the Greater North Dakota Chamber signed a letter last week urging lawmakers to focus on redistricting and the Rescue Plan aid, so that debate on policy bills isn't given short shrift. 

But some people welcomed debate on other issues. Hundreds gathered on the Capitol grounds at midday Monday for a "We the People" rally to draw lawmakers' attention to personal liberty issues such as vaccination mandates.

An organizer of the rally, Rep. Jeff Hoverson, R-Minot, couldn't attend because he has COVID-19 and is quarantining. He took part in the session remotely on Monday.

Bills advance

House and Senate budget writers worked throughout October to cull more than $9 billion in requests for the American Rescue Plan aid.

The Legislature's Redistricting Committee held several meetings in September to redraw legislative districts using 2020 census data -- a draft that lawmakers can still tweak. Legislative Management also advanced four other bills from interim committees.

Delayed bills committees met on Monday to decide which of 21 House bills and five Senate bills outside the main scope of the session to allowed to be introduced.

The House panel advanced seven bills and one resolution, and the Senate panel put forth one bill.

They include legislation opposing critical race theory -- which centers on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions and that they function to maintain the dominance of white people in society -- and vaccine mandates.

Pollert

Pollert

House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, said other delayed bills can still advance on Tuesday with a two-thirds vote of the House, a high bar.

Pollert, a retired business owner, said he doesn't think the federal government "should tell us how to do our jobs here and our businesses, but I also believe that individuals can be vaccinated or unvaccinated. That's up to them. But I also believe that businesses have the right to decide how they're going to run their businesses."

He also said lawmakers "need to have a discussion" about critical race theory, citing "a lot of folks (who) aren't happy."

North Dakota earlier this month joined multistate lawsuits against the Biden administration's COVID-19 vaccine mandate for federal contractors and federally contracted employees, and for private companies.

Lawmakers during their regular session earlier this year passed a law banning so-called "vaccine passports," which verify a person's immunizations. The law prohibits government entities and businesses from requiring documents for certain vaccinations.

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Gov. Doug Burgum, middle, is escorted into the House chamber by Minority Leader Joshua Boschee, left, D-Fargo, and Majority Leader Chet Pollert, right, R-Carrington, before giving his State of the State address at the start of the special legislative session at the state Capitol in Bismarck on Monday.

State of the state

Burgum helped launch the session with a State of the State message to a joint session of the Legislature. He lauded the state's natural resources, rainy day reserves and rosy economic outlook.

He touted his "Accelerate ND" plan for spending North Dakota's American Rescue Plan money on workforce and economic development and infrastructure for primarily one-time projects.

He also urged lawmakers to go further and use a state budget surplus for two-year income tax relief, about $207 million.

"We can afford to do it, we should want to do it and the hardworking taxpayers of North Dakota certainly deserve it," the governor told lawmakers.

Legislative leaders have said they prefer permanent tax relief, but in the 2023 Legislature.

Lawmakers also are reluctant to use the $410 million 2019-21 budget surplus in the special session.

Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, pointed out the rosy outlook for state revenues in February 2020, weeks before the coronavirus pandemic racked the oil industry.

First meetings

The Legislature's Joint Redistricting Committee and the House and Senate appropriations committees began meetings on the draft districts map and the Rescue Plan money, respectively, after weeks of writing the bills.

Wardner called redistricting "the main reason we're here."

Wardner

Rich Wardner

The redistricting panel on Tuesday morning will hear a bill for reorganizing district parties, given the new districts.

The draft map maintains 47 districts but increases the average constituency to 16,576 people, which is North Dakota's 2020 population divided among 47 districts. The map also includes House subdistricts for the Fort Berthold and Turtle Mountain Indian reservations.

Senate budget writers are working through the main Rescue Plan bill for spending $700 million of the aid.

The governor and Republican majority leaders agree on an emphasis of one-time projects such as infrastructure and workforce development for spending the Rescue Plan aid.

"We want to make sure that those dollars are used wisely," Wardner said.

Water projects, roads and bridges, and career and technical education centers are prime examples, he said. 

The largest Rescue Plan proposal, $150 million for a west-to-east Bakken natural gas pipeline, is "one of the key points for me," said Pollert, the House majority leader.

"I see that as important for us, for the central part of the state, for us to further economic development," he said. "This all isn't just about the Bismarcks and the Minots and the Willistons and the Dickinsons and the Fargos and Grand Forks. It's about the Carringtons, Devils Lakes, Rugbys and folks like that." 

House and Senate budget writers must work through differences in the Rescue Plan spending blueprints, and can expect long days this week, Wardner said. 

"They're not going to be out dining and dancing on the town. They're going to be working. This is not a 9-to-5 job. It's probably more like a 7 in the morning to 9 at night job," he said. "And we're the ringmasters. We'll be cracking the whip."

Leaders are hoping for the special session to finish late Friday. It costs taxpayers about $64,000 a day to run the special session.

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

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