The 2021 Legislature adjourned early Friday after approving a record budget. It was a session of some major achievements with forays into debates over social issues such as mandatory masks and transgender athletes.
The $17 billion budget tops the previous record by $2.5 billion and was bolstered by federal funding for COVID-19 relief. Still, it’s an amazing number for a body that has been historically tight with the budget. That’s been changed in recent years largely because of oil revenue.
Two of the most important steps taken by the Legislature involved improving the state for the future. One, a $680 million bonding bill for infrastructure projects with a focus on flood-control needs, reflected a change in approach. Legislators have been reluctant in the past to approve bonding. Original proposals sought more money for a wide variety of projects, but the scope of the final bill was scaled back.
The other major legislation was the creation of an expanded investment policy to provide loans for infrastructure projects and offer capital for in-state companies. The program will use 20% of future oil tax collections going into the Legacy Fund for the loans.
The state’s Investment Board will be responsible for approving the loans. Expect a line of applicants when the board launches the program. Supporters of the proposed Buffalo City Park at Jamestown said they plan to apply. The Legislature rejected a request for a $5 million grant for the project.
The intent of the investment is to promote North Dakota companies and keep the money in the state.
While both pieces of legislation have the potential of having a big impact on the state, it’s essential that the projects are well vetted.
One of the interesting aspects of the session was the approval of the higher education and K-12 budgets. Neither sparked the heated debates that have marked previous Legislatures. The most contentious issue was an effort to end North Dakota State University’s involvement with Planned Parenthood.
Other controversial legislation included a bill allowing schools to post the Ten Commandments along with other historical documents. Gov. Doug Burgum signed the bill, but it faces a likely legal challenge.
The governor, however, vetoed a bill banning transgender students from playing on elementary and high school girls teams. The Senate failed to override.
Legislators had an ongoing debate during the session over mandating the use of face masks, finally approving a bill banning state-elected officials and the state health officer from imposing mask mandates.
They also passed a bill limiting the governor’s ability to decide how to spend federal funds. Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem has suggested the bill could be unconstitutional. It’s part of an ongoing effort by the Legislature to reduce the authority of the governor. The Tribune believes the Legislature has gone too far in trying to consolidate power.
The House also took the unprecedented step of expelling Rep. Luke Simons, R-Dickinson, for his behavior toward others, especially women. The Legislature needs to be diligent in maintaining its standards on behavior and having systems in place for people to report harassment.
Also worth noting, legislators approved a $13.5 million grant for Gateway to Science in Bismarck; adopted electronic posting of no-hunting for landowners; rejected primary enforcement of seat belt laws; and provided a share of oil taxes to the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation from wells that straddle the reservation. In the final bill of the session, $90,000 was included for the Youth Cultural Achievement Program, allowing the continuation of the program that serves Native American youth and other minorities.
Overall, legislators were willing to spend on key issues, but there was a streak of independence, almost defiance, when it came to mask mandates, vaccine passports or other restrictions and protocols related to the pandemic. There also was a desire by some to impose moral and religious beliefs on everyone.
As usual, the Legislature could be more efficient if it left personal agendas at the door.