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North Dakota session marked by record budget, pandemic

BISMARCK (AP) — The 2021 North Dakota Legislature was reaching its finale Thursday in a session marked by a record-high state budget, the first expulsion of a lawmaker and pandemic protocols that greatly dampened public participation at the state Capitol.

Lawmakers were set for a marathon day that legislative leaders believed would end late Thursday or early Friday with approval of the spending bill for the Office of Management and Budget, which also serves as Legislature’s last-minute catchall measure.

Thursday was Day 76 for the Legislature, just short of the 80-day maximum set by the North Dakota Constitution. The Legislature will use the remaining days later in the year to approve new legislative districts.

The Republican-led Legislature has passed record-setting budgets in most of the past several sessions, but the spending plan for the next two-year budget cycle is particularly eye-popping, due in part to federal coronavirus aid.

As the session wound down Thursday, lawmakers were completing work on $17.1 billion, two-year budget, or almost $2.5 billion more than the current budget cycle that ends June 30.

The 2021-2023 budget includes $5.1 billion in general fund spending, up from $4.8 billion in the current budget cycle. The state’s general fund is spent on an assortment of programs, including education and human services, and is financed mostly by state taxes on income, sales and energy.

While it’s hard to argue that the Legislature has been stingy with a taxpayer buck in recent years, it had shown little appetite for bonding and generally has funded projects with money on hand, instead of borrowing for them.

Until now.

Republican Gov. Doug Burgum in the waning days of the session signed a landmark $680 million infrastructure bonding bill that will use earnings from North Dakota’s multibillion-dollar oil piggybank to pay off the debt. The bipartisan bill that highlighted the session got wide support and represents the most amount of money borrowed in state history. The legislation allots three-quarters of the bond money for flood-control projects in Fargo and Minot.

Additionally, Burgum signed bipartisan legislation aimed at creating a broader investment policy for the state’s voter-approved oil tax savings account, known as the Legacy Fund. The aim is to tap 20% of future oil tax collections coming into the Legacy Fund to help establish loans for expensive infrastructure projects and provide capital for in-state companies.

In all, the Legislature added about 500 new laws — from allowing booze sales earlier on Sunday mornings to recognizing Juneteenth as a ceremonial holiday in the state.

This year also marked a longstanding power struggle between the Legislature and Burgum, who is now serving during his third session. Each chamber in the Legislature got the two-thirds majority needed to reject two of Burgum ‘s vetoes: one that would prohibit state officials from mandating face coverings and another that would give lawmakers more oversight on how federal funding is spent.

The Legislature also sustained a pair of Burgum’s vetoes, including one on a bill that would have restricted transgender girls from participating in public elementary and secondary school sports.

The transgender legislation was perhaps the only bill that appealed to North Dakota’s conservative base that Burgum refused to sign.

The governor defied threats of litigation by signing a measure aimed at shielding schools and teachers from lawsuits arising from posting the Ten Commandments in classrooms. Burgum’s endorsement came after attorneys and school officials warned the legislation is unconstitutional and would spur costly and unwinnable legal fights.

Burgum also signed a sheaf of pro-gun measures, including one that allows people to stand their ground and use whatever force necessary to protect themselves or their home.

Marring the session was the expulsion of GOP Rep. Luke Simons, who was accused of threatening and sexually harassing women at the Capitol. It was the first time since statehood that a lawmaker has been expelled. The rancher and barber was accused of a pattern of sexually aggressive, lewd, and threatening behavior. Simons denied wrongdoing and refused Republican leaders’ calls to resign.