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ND budget writers finish coronavirus spending plan

BISMARCK (AP) — The North Dakota Legislature’s budget writers agreed Thursday to spend nearly all of the $1.1 billion in federal coronavirus aid available to the state on initiatives ranging from infrastructure improvements and energy projects to workforce development and childcare programs.

House and Senate appropriations committees finished work on the spending plan, after a marathon day Wednesday during which budget writers from both houses failed to reach a consensus on some items, including the Senate’s proposals for a $25 million upgrade for an administrative building at Minot State University and a $30 million addition to a revolving loan fund for hospitals.

House negotiators conceded to the university building upgrade but held firm on opposing the revolving loan fund for hospitals. The fund, which was established earlier with $50 million, already has been depleted.

The biggest ticket item approved by both committees — and pushed by Republican Gov. Doug Burgum — was $150 million for natural gas infrastructure in the state’s oil patch.

The $1.1 billion in federal coronavirus funds the state received in June represents the single-largest deposit into the state treasury in history. Lawmakers and others submitted a wish list that totaled $9.2 billion for the recent round of money. The appropriations committees narrowed the requests after several meetings in the past month.

In all, only $54 million of the $1.1 billion wasn’t tapped for spending.

Previous appropriations totaling $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus aid last year already has been spent or earmarked for spending.

North Dakota Republicans control both chambers of the Legislature and budget writers said they put priorities ahead of wishful spending, and initiatives that won’t require a commitment of funds from taxpayers in the future.

The Legislature could have waited until the end of 2026 to spend the federal aid but many lawmakers — and Burgum — pushed to spend the money quickly to address pressing needs and to avoid inflation and rising construction costs for infrastructure projects.

The spending suggestions will be forwarded in the form of legislation to the full Legislature, which will debate the bill when they meet Nov. 8 in either a reconvened or special session.

GOP Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner and his House majority counterpart, Chet Pollert, said they believed the spending suggestions were well-vetted and should pass both chambers with relatively little fuss.