BISMARCK — North Dakota lawmakers heard a medley of pitches Tuesday, Oct. 12, for the distribution of about $700 million in coronavirus aid, the first of six meetings this month in which state budget writers aim to map out their plan for the federal cash injection.
Individual lawmakers and Gov. Doug Burgum have combined for more than $9 billion worth of ideas for how to spend funds out of the American Rescue Plan Act, which the Legislature's House and Senate appropriations committees are looking to winnow and synthesize into a single bill before the start of a reconvened session next month.
Senate Appropriations Chair Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, and his House counterpart Rep. Jeff Delzer, R-Underwood, have said the federal money will target one-time funding sources like roads and bridges, sewage management, water projects and other infrastructure investments.
North Dakota received a total of $1.1 billion out of the American Rescue Plan Act, a significant portion of which was already appropriated during the legislative session earlier this year. That leaves close to $700 million for lawmakers to dole out this November, and the state has until 2026 to spend the entirety of its aid package.
Among the proposals being considered by the House and Senate appropriations committees are a host of investments pitched by lawmakers to benefit their districts. Hundreds of millions of dollars are on the table for roads and bridges around the state, while broadband, higher education improvements, rural water supply and flood control projects account for some other big-ticket items.
This month’s marathon format is the result of a law passed during the 2021 legislative session — approved in spite of an initial governor’s veto — to give the Legislature more control over the purse strings in the distribution of federal funds. During the previous round of federal pandemic relief, $1.25 billion was distributed by the six-member Emergency Commission, composed of the governor, secretary of state and four top Republican lawmakers.
Burgum presented his own blueprint for spending the federal aid funding last month. Top Republican lawmakers said in a statement Tuesday that they will likely include several of the governor's proposals in their bill, including allocations for a state-run workforce development program and $100 million for infrastructure to bring natural gas from the western North Dakota oilfields to the eastern part of the state.
That’s one of several ideas that would be a boon to the state’s energy or oil sectors. Burgum has also suggested putting an additional $25 million dollars into a recently formed state fund for low-emissions energy projects, as well as $6.4 million to convert abandoned oil wells into water wells for western North Dakota livestock.
The two appropriations committees will convene to hear more proposals on Wednesday. They will then swap agendas for two more days of testimony next week before condensing their spending plan into a single bill later this month.
Lawmakers are expected to have a busy schedule during their return to Bismarck in November, when they will have to vote on the allocation of the federal funds and approve the state's new legislative districts, which have been redrawn based on 2020 census results.
Readers can reach reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at firstname.lastname@example.org.