Budgets and COVID-19 top legislative agenda

Legislators face lower revenue and coronavirus pandemic at the start of the new legislative session

Chet Pollert, R-Carrington

The normal challenges of the North Dakota Legislature, things like budgets and funding infrastructure, are complicated in the upcoming session by the coronavirus pandemic, according to legislative leaders.

"We hope we've been cautious enough so we can all be safe and healthy while there," said Sen. Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford and Senate minority leader.

Rep. Chet Pollert, R-Carrington and House majority leader, said the precautions have been several months in development.

"We took some CARES money and invested in video and audio communications," he said. "Folks who test positive can stay home or at a hotel, but they can still participate."

CARES Act provided $1.25 billion in federal aid to North Dakota to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. The state used a portion of that funding to provide electronic communications for virtual meetings for the House and Senate chambers and committee rooms.


Members of the Legislature can participate in the sessions and committee hearings remotely from their home or from newly added private office spaces in the capitol building.

Rep. Bernie Satrom, R-Jamestown, expects more remote communications in the legislative process.

"I expect a lot more of the testimony will be done by way of videoconferencing," he said. "Keeping the staff healthy at the capital is critical so that we can proceed in doing the people's business."

The new procedures and equipment will allow legislators options in how they participate in the session.

"If they are not comfortable on the floor, there is office space in the capitol," Heckaman said. "Someone who is ill can participate from home or a hotel. Of course, we don't want anyone who is severely ill to participate even electronically."

In addition, members will have their temperatures taken and rapid COVID-19 tests will be available for members of the Legislature.

"We've got to be able to meet," Pollert said. "We still have got to make sure we have a balanced budget in between all the COVID precautions."

Balancing the budget is going to be a challenge given reductions in revenues, Heckaman said.


"Over the past several biennium the tax structure has brought in less revenue," she said. "Oil taxes and sales taxes are down."

Pollert said the Legislature will still deal with the operations of the state government.

"We need to still invest in infrastructure," he said. "K-12 education will be there again."

Heckaman said at least three plans for bonding or borrowing money for infrastructure projects have been in development by Republican Legislators, Democratic Legislators and the governor's office.

The bonding bills would use money borrowed now under low-interest rates for roads, water and other projects in North Dakota. The money would be repaid later possibly from interest earned by the Legacy Fund, Heckaman said.

Using borrowed money for infrastructure projects could leave more of the current tax revenue for services and programs, Heckaman said.

"Hopefully we can get through without cutting as the governor anticipates," she said.

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