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Burgum signs off on $1B in Rescue Plan spending; putting cap on special session

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Burgum Sanford

Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford, left, and Gov. Doug Burgum share a light moment with Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, in September 2021 in Memorial Hall of the state Capitol in Bismarck, before Burgum was to present his proposal for spending North Dakota's $1 billion federal American Rescue Plan Act coronavirus aid. Behind the governor is first lady Kathryn Burgum. 

Gov. Doug Burgum on Monday signed the remaining bills passed by the Legislature in its special session last week, including the nearly $1 billion spending plan for North Dakota's federal Rescue Plan coronavirus aid.

Senate Bill 2345 contains more than $571 million in mainly one-time projects using the money. The biggest item is $140 million toward a west-to-east Bakken natural gas pipeline that could cost an estimated $1 billion.

Other major items are water infrastructure, higher education buildings and human service programs.

The governor in a statement said "these strategic investments will benefit North Dakota taxpayers right now and for generations to come."

"Making these investments will grow and diversify our economy, make our state more competitive, improve the efficiency of government services, avoid inflationary costs and create long-term cost savings for North Dakota taxpayers,” said Burgum, who proposed his own blueprint to the Legislature, including income tax relief tapping a state budget surplus, which passed.

“We’re deeply grateful to legislative leaders and the entire assembly for their collaboration on these priorities," he said. "Our shared conservative approach to fiscal management has allowed us to make these one-time investments without growing government while also providing tax relief for half a million North Dakota citizens.”

The Republican-led House and Senate appropriations committees worked throughout October to winnow more than $9 billion of requests to write a Rescue Plan spending draft. Omitted projects could return in the 2023 Legislature.

Rep. Jon Nelson, R-Rugby, supports the $150 million for a natural gas pipeline in SB 2345.

The bill leaves about $63 million of the Rescue Plan money unspent. The 2023 Legislature can allocate that money. 

The Rescue Plan money must be allocated by the end of 2024 and must be spent by the end of 2026.

House Bill 1505 also spends Rescue Plan money, using about $374 million of the $1 billion to cover previously approved projects that were deemed ineligible for other federal coronavirus aid.

The biggest item is $317 million for transportation projects, including $200 million for state road and bridge projects and $24.6 million for county bridge project grants. 

State agency requests

House Bill 1506 contains a bevy of state agency requests for items such as salary increases and additional full-time employees that would normally go to the state Emergency Commission and the Legislature's Budget Section between regular legislative sessions.

The bill includes about $537,000 from leftover Consumer Protection Refund Fund money for salary increases for the State Crime Lab, which has seen eight of 23 forensic scientists depart in the last two years, including five in 2021.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said the scientists are offered far higher salaries elsewhere. The lab has had to eliminate its firearms and latent fingerprints divisions because of the short staffing.

The bill also has $1.8 million for the state Retirement and Investment Office, including six new full-time positions and $1.7 million for salaries.

The office has been constrained by understaffing, which the agency's head says has affected the rollout of new in-state investment components for the state's $8.3 billion Legacy Fund oil tax savings.

The five-day special session, which cost taxpayers about $64,000 a day, chiefly addressed redistricting the Legislature and deciding how to spend the Rescue Plan aid. But the Legislature strayed to other topics, including a ban on teaching critical race theory and exemptions for COVID-19 vaccination requirements.

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

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