Legislative wrap up

BISMARCK – In just under four months, North Dakota lawmakers finished a nearly $10 billion budget and approved hundreds of new laws that will affect residents across the state.

The 2011 Legislature ended its work Thursday, with Republican leaders calling it a “landmark session.”

“We did some historic things for the state of North Dakota,” Senate Majority Leader Bob Stenehjem of Bismarck said. “What other state in the United States has the economic vitality that North Dakota has? We truly are the envy of the nation.”

“This was a great session for the citizens, and we’re really proud of what got accomplished,” said House Majority Leader Al Carlson of Fargo.

So what exactly did get done this session?

Tax relief and infrastructure funding are two major pillars that both Republicans and Democrats point to, although the parties have differing perspectives.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple signed a $490 million tax reduction package into law on Wednesday, calling it “truly a landmark piece of legislation.”

The bill provides $341.8 million in property tax relief, $120 million to reduce individual income tax rates, $25 million to reduce corporation income tax rates and $2.1 million to reduce the financial institutions tax rate.

The owner of a $150,000 home will see a property tax reduction of about $506 a year.

“For the people of North Dakota,” Dalrymple said before signing his name to the bill.

Democrats strongly opposed the $25 million tax break for corporations. Senate Minority Leader Ryan Taylor of Towner said the money could have been used to fund programs for children that Republicans opposed and to aim relief more at small businesses.

On the infrastructure side, the state will spend $600 million to rebuild and repair state highways across the state. The Legislature also provided $370.6 million for oil counties and $60 million for non-oil producing counties for infrastructure needs.

Democrats are pleased with the investment, but said this isn’t the end of the needs.

“The story about our infrastructure is certainly not done,” said House Assistant Minority Leader Lee Kaldor of Mayville. “There’s going to be some bragging about how much we put into it, but we’ve got a big, big burden out there.”

Other big talking points this session were putting the University of North Dakota’s Fighting Sioux nickname into state law, passing a statewide texting-while-driving ban and making young teens wait a little longer to get a driver’s license.

The Legislature approved $235 million for state water projects. This includes building an east-end outlet and expanding the west-end outlet at Devils Lake, a water control structure at Tolna Coulee and flood control in Fargo.

Sen. Dave Oehlke, R-Devils Lake, was glad the Legislature approved his proposed ban on Internet hunting and made progress for Devils Lake.

“Finally this session, people finally were understanding on a statewide level how serious of a problem the Devils Lake area really is and what needs to be done with it,” Oehlke said. “So it’s kind of exciting to see that there will be an outlet put in by this time next year, and we’ll be able to get some relief from the rising waters there.”

A dozen new field inspectors were added to enhance oversight of North Dakota’s oil and gas industry, as well as two new Highway Patrol troopers to enforce truck regulations.

Legislators approved $3.1 million to recruit, train and retain child care providers. They also boosted funding to senior service providers by $300,000 to help cover costs of providing meals to the elderly and gave $1.7 million in grants to support domestic violence agencies.

The Legislature approved $997 million in state funding for K-12 schools and achieved its goal of funding adequacy. Projects at college campuses across the state were approved, and Chancellor Bill Goetz said he intends for tuition to hold steady at community colleges and be limited to 2.5 percent increases at the state’s four-year universities.

About $4 billion of the state’s budget is general fund money. The ending fund balance projected for the 2011-13 biennium is $51 million, said Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks. There is also estimated to be $386 million in the budget stabilization fund and $700,000 in a new strategic investment and improvements fund.

The Legislature also set aside nearly $342 million to use for property tax relief during the 2013-15 biennium. The Legacy Fund is expected to have more than $600 million in the bank by the end of 2011-13, although legislators can’t spend any of that money until 2017.

Rep. Eliot Glassheim, D-Grand Forks, said there were arguments among Republicans about how much money the Legislature was spending and what it meant for the future.

“They seem to be afraid that they won’t be able to say no in the future if they don’t say no now and that drives me bananas,” Glassheim said.

Kaldor said he found it amazing the Legislature passed multibillion budgets like transportation and human services with little to no debate. Yet in the final days of the session, legislators were fighting over amounts worth $200,000, he said.

Carlson said it’s much harder to govern with money than without it. He said critics have also said the state spent too much money.

“There was a lot of spending but, in my opinion, we put it in the right place,” he said

Stenehjem said no matter how much money there is, there’s bound to be somebody who didn’t get covered for something.

Taylor said there were good things achieved this session, but also misplaced priorities.

“North Dakota is growing, and that’s a new thing for our state. I think the ideology of cutting (spending) maybe just for the sake of cutting does not fit a state that is growing,” he said.

Taylor also thought the Legislature needed to look past the two-year budget cycle and take a long-term view of North Dakota’s future.

Children seemed to take a backseat this session, with money denied for Head Start and other children’s programs, Taylor said. Democrats also say less time could have been spent debating multiple pieces of legislation opposing federal health care reform.

“It seemed for awhile there was one a day,” said House Minority Leader Jerry Kelsh of Fullerton.

Every session, there’s a list of items that don’t make the final cut.

“One of the things that we tried to address but didn’t get done was some of the tax issues dealing with the energy industry, especially oil,” said Rep. Blair Thoreson, R-Fargo.

Some legislators wanted more done with high-fence hunting protection and animal welfare. Dickinson legislators vow to be back next session to get funding for a Theodore Roosevelt resource center.

Now that the session is over, Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley has said the work will begin to let the public know what was accomplished and to start setting priorities for the next one.

Legislators return to the chambers in mid-November for a special session on redistricting and federal health care reform.