North Dakota’s Senate on Wednesday approved a $571 million bill for mainly one-time projects, spending most of the state’s federal Rescue Plan coronavirus aid.
The Senate also rejected a last-minute move to cut out millions for higher education projects. Senate Bill 2345 passed in a 41-6 vote, sending it to the House of Representatives.
“(The bill) is, like my great-aunt Alma would say, is lumpy gravy: There are some very good parts in it, parts you like and parts you will not like at all,” Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, told the Senate. “But it is the product of a long hearing process of recommendations from legislators, from the governor’s office and from the public.”
The House and Senate appropriations committees worked throughout October to winnow more than $9 billion of requests to write a Rescue Plan spending draft, emphasizing one-time projects such as infrastructure. Omitted projects could return in the 2023 Legislature.
The House on Tuesday passed a companion bill for shifting funding of previously approved projects — about $400 million — to the rest of the Rescue Plan money, which totals about $1 billion. Other federal coronavirus aid was deemed ineligible for the projects the 2021 Legislature approved.
Natural gas pipeline
The biggest item in Senate Bill 2345 is $150 million in grant money to bring more natural gas service to eastern North Dakota.
The bulk of the funds are meant to go toward a cross-state pipeline transporting gas from the Bakken oil fields eastward. The bill also carves out $10 million to build a short line that would carry gas from a bigger pipeline in western Minnesota to an industrial site in Grand Forks.
The proposal has the support of Grand Forks officials, as well as the oil and gas industry. North Dakota’s propane industry opposes it. Natural gas and propane are competitors.
It’s expected that a future cross-state pipeline would cost around $1 billion. Most gas produced in the Bakken is transported to other states, and while companies have considered adding more pipelines to span the length of North Dakota in the past, the economics have not panned out.
Bismarck State College
Another big item in the bill is $38 million for Bismarck State College’s polytechnic project.
BSC President Doug Jensen said in a presentation to the Senate Appropriations Committee this week that the State Board of Higher Education approved the college’s polytechnic mission without adequate funding. Polytechnic programs starting in 2022 will not be state funded until the 2026-27 fiscal year, so they will rely solely on tuition. That money does not account for the program cost, curriculum development or specialized equipment.
As a polytechnic institution, the college offers technical degrees across disciplines to ready students for the workforce.
Separately, Sen. Brad Bekkedahl, R-Williston, unsuccessfully sought to add increased salaries for Williston State College to the bill, citing difficulty retaining and attracting faculty at the college in the oil patch.
Other major items include:
• $75 million for water infrastructure
• $50 million for the University of North Dakota’s Merrifield Hall project
• $29 million for behavioral health services, child care services, a Medicaid eligibility system upgrade, and substance use disorder voucher treatment system grants
• $25.8 million for long-term care facility financial assistance and administrative expenses of the state Department of Human Services
• $25 million for Minot State University’s Hartnett Hall project
Other items include $1.5 million for “alternatives to abortion services” such as counseling and parenting education, and $4.8 million for stipends to county jails for costs incurred due to deferred admission of inmates to the state prison system due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The bill’s smallest item is $20,000 for development of a web-based document management system for the state Office of Administrative Hearings.
The bill would leave $52.8 million of the Rescue Plan money unspent. The money must be allocated by the end of 2024, and spent by the end of 2026.
Sen. Janne Myrdal, R-Edinburg, asked the Senate to cut out six higher ed projects totaling $118 million, saying they seem to be “special interests” and warrant further vetting in a regular session.
“This bill seems to me like you go to a restaurant and you have the money and you order everything on the menu and you think it’s healthy for you,” Myrdal said.
She acknowledged her move was “a last-minute decision” despite weeks of appropriations hearings on proposals for the Rescue Plan money.
Myrdal led a move in the 2021 Legislature to prevent the state’s universities from partnering with groups that support or provide abortions, but Republican Gov. Doug Burgum vetoed the bill’s penalties, which he called “problematic.”
The Senate on Wednesday rejected removing the higher ed projects in a 33-14 vote and approved the remainder of the bill 44-3. The full bill then passed 41-6.
(Tribune reporters Sam Nelson and Amy R. Sisk contributed to this story.)