- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 29, 2015

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - The North Dakota Legislature ended its 2015 session Wednesday after spending a record amount of cash but leaving unresolved a measure that affects public employee benefits.

Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley, the North Dakota Senate’s presiding officer, hit the final gavel at 1:28 p.m. Wednesday. A half hour earlier, House members had officially completed their work after finishing a brief chorus of “Auld Lang Syne.”

The session lasted 78 days, just short of the 80-day maximum set by the North Dakota Constitution.

GOP Gov. Jack Dalrymple and the Legislature’s Republican majority leaders, Fargo Rep. Al Carlson and Dickinson Sen. Rich Wardner, praised spending plans for improving roads and other infrastructure in western North Dakota’s oil-producing region and a package of reductions in income and property taxes statewide.

“We did a great job of funding priorities and giving money back to the taxpayer,” Carlson said.

Slumping oil prices forced the Legislature to re-evaluate spending plans throughout the session, though it did not dampen spending greatly, with lawmakers giving the nod to such things as a new $5 million governor’s residence and $1.5 million to purchase a rare mummified dinosaur.

“I think the session as a whole was very successful,” Dalrymple told reporters. “If you look at it in the context of the adjustments and forecast along the way, I think it’s really good news in the end.”

The Legislature’s spending plan for the 2015-17 budget cycle that begins July 1 is $14.4 billion, up from $13.7 billion in the current two-year budget cycle. The state’s total budget includes federal aid and other revenues, such as state gasoline taxes.

The budget includes about $6 billion in state general fund spending, which is financed mostly by taxes on sales, income and energy. The sum represents a decrease of about $873 million from the current two-year cycle.

The Legislature also approved so-called surge funding that will fast-track $1.1 billion for highways and communities affected by exploding growth. The record one-time spending bill was rushed through the House and Senate so infrastructure projects could begin by summer. The bulk of the money will be spent in western North Dakota’s oil-producing region, which has been overwhelmed with spending needs on roads, utilities, housing and schools amid a flourishing state economy.

Democrats said they supported a number of the Legislature’s initiatives but that improvements in social programs should have come before reducing corporate income taxes and cutting oil taxes.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider of Grand Forks blasted the Republican-led Legislature for cutting the state’s oil tax rate from 11.5 percent to 10 percent. Republicans believe the move offers better certainty for the state and industry, while Democrats say it could cost the state billions in tax revenue.

The measure was introduced and approved in the penultimate week of the session, and Schneider has called it a “back-room” bill.

House and Senate leaders have been at loggerheads for weeks over unfinished legislation aimed at ensuring that thousands of public employees, including lawmakers, can keep the same health benefits and medical providers when their insurer changes July 1. Lawmakers still have two days where they can come back and finish the work, Wardner, the Senate majority leader, said.

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