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North Dakota lawmakers to review new law limiting board's spending approval

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031319-nws-holmberg.jpg

Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, speaks with Gov. Doug Burgum in Memorial Hall of the state Capitol in March 2019.

North Dakota lawmakers will review a new law limiting a state board's spending approval of federal money, due to uncertainty about state agency requests that appear to need the approval of the full Legislature.

Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, told the Tribune on Tuesday that he assigned the Legislature's interim Government Finance Committee to review the law limiting the Emergency Commission's spending approval authority between biennial sessions of the Legislature.

The Emergency Commission comprises the governor, secretary of state, House and Senate majority leaders and top budget writers.

The new law, which took effect in April when the Legislature overrode Gov. Doug Burgum's veto of the bill, limits the panel's spending approval of federal funds to $50 million in a two-year budget cycle -- a cap already reached with about two weeks left to go. Any money over that cap needs approval of the Legislature, which meets every two years. Lawmakers adjourned April 30.

The Emergency Commission meets Wednesday to consider nine requests, some of which appear to need the full Legislature's approval due to the new law aimed at more legislative oversight. It's unclear how the board will handle the requests.

Holmberg, who is a member of the board, said the Legislature was "a little sloppy in what we passed. It does need to be corrected."

"We collectively thought we were doing the right thing at the time, but now sometimes harsh reality comes and bites you places, and there seems to be some teeth marks on parts of our body, so it's time to reassess," he said.

The interim committee will review the law for "the reasons why we did what we did, the anticipated results and the unanticipated results of what happened," Holmberg said.

He expects the committee, which includes House and Senate budget writers, to report recommendations in October for the Legislature to address in early November during its redistricting session. He informed House and Senate leaders Tuesday of the fast-tracked study.

The $50 million cap could be a major issue. Emergency Commission items in past two-year budget cycles, such as education and highway funding, have topped $100 million, Holmberg said.

Sen. David Hogue, R-Minot, brought Senate Bill 2290 as a response to the federal CARES Act coronavirus aid sent to states.

Sen. David Hogue, R-Minot, introduces SB 2290.

North Dakota received $1.25 billion, which the Emergency Commission largely decided how to spend. Items over $50,000 also go to the Legislature's Budget Section, which could only approve or deny the requests. The new law  allows the Budget Section to amend items over $3 million.

Burgum cited several issues with the bill in his veto, including the $50 million cap, "set so low that even a variance of less than half of one percent over the next two-year budget cycle would trigger the need for a special session," he wrote.

Governor's spokesman Mike Nowatzki declined to comment on the law.

North Dakota has had 15 special legislative sessions in state history, most recently in 2016 to address a $1 billion state revenue shortfall.

The governor may call the Legislature into a special session at any time. This year's Legislature also may use four days remaining from its 80-day limit.

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

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