House approves new Commerce budget

BISMARCK—The battle over Centers of Excellence and child care grants continued Thursday as the state House again passed a budget for the state’s Commerce Department.

Unhappy with changes the Senate made to the original bill, the House killed the budget on Wednesday and decided to start over again.

Even with the new bill, Centers of Excellence and child care grants remain points of contention between the two chambers.

The House again left out $13 million for the centers and restored child care funding to nearly $5 million. The Senate wants the $13 million for Centers of Excellence and cut the child care money to $250,000 during its first go-round with the bill.

The child care money is to provide grants to service providers for work force development, quality improvement, technical assistance and capacity building.

Rep. Kathy Hawken, R-Fargo, stressed the importance of the funding, calling child chare a work force development issue.

“When those workers that are being hired come to North Dakota, they need a place for their children to be safe,” she said.

Here are some of the other items in what’s now Senate Bill 2057 that the House passed Thursday on a 73-19 vote:

– $1.5 million for tourism infrastructure grants.

– $4.2 million for a Grand Forks Air Force Base realignment grant. This is to provide grants for infrastructure or enhancement of economic development and employment opportunities.

– $300,000 for a Bismarck idea center, a not-for-profit organization to assist individuals with business ideas.

-$100,000 for the promotion and marketing of USS North Dakota.

Rep. Bob Skarphol, R-Tioga, said the budget puts more emphasis on small entrepreneurs than big projects.

The House’s version of the budget does not include funding for a state energy director, an electronic portfolio pilot project or the American Indian Business Development Office, all of which the Senate supports.

Assistant Minority Leader Lee Kaldor of Mayville opposed the removal of money for the Centers of Excellence. He said there’s a stringent vetting process for awarding money and the program is important to North Dakota’s growth.

He also pointed out that the House could find more than $5 million to add to the Commerce Department budget in 24 hours, but says it can’t afford smaller projects in the health and human services budgets.

House Majority Leader Al Carlson of Fargo said the debate isn’t over on Centers of Excellence, and the budget is far from being finalized.

“In the end, we’re going to do what’s best for creating a good, solid work force in the state,” he said.

The bill now heads to the Senate for senators to offer their counterproposal.