- Associated Press - Thursday, July 21, 2016

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - North Dakota Democrats laid out a plan Thursday for a special session of the Legislature that they say addresses budget shortfalls while softening cuts to some social services.

Democrats called their plan that was announced at a press conference in downtown Fargo “strategic and compassionate,” though the Legislature’s Republican majority leaders, Rep. Al Carlson of Fargo and Sen. Rich Wardner of Dickinson, said it would have no influence on a bill they are crafting with GOP Gov. Jack Dalrymple.

“They have the right to do whatever they want to do, press conferences or whatever,” Carlson said of the Democrats’ plan. “We are working with the governor to address this issue, and we’re going to present ours next week.”

Dalrymple last week called a three-day special session of the Legislature beginning Aug. 2 to address a $310 million shortfall to the state treasury due to slumping oil and crop prices. That’s in addition to a previous $1.1 billion shortfall that was made up in part in February by Dalrymple ordering deep cuts to most government agencies and a massive raid on the state’s savings.

Part of the Democrats’ plan released Thursday would retain 87 percent of prior cuts to most state agencies, while restoring about $30 million for social service programs. The party expects to balance the state budget by further dipping into the state’s savings and taking more money from the state-owned Bank of North Dakota, ideas that have been mentioned by GOP lawmakers previously.

Democratic legislative leaders have complained that they weren’t consulted much about the special session, or how to deal with dwindling tax collections.

To introduce bills, lawmakers must get approval from a Republican-controlled, delayed bills committee in either the House or Senate. Republicans hold two-thirds’ majorities in both chambers.

Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks, said his party wants to work with Republicans to reach a consensus on how the budget shortfall should be addressed before the Legislature returns next month.

“Let’s talk about the best part of both bills,” Schneider said. “It’s very much in the public interest to talk these things through and develop a consensus before we get to Bismarck,” Schneider said.

A big divide appears to be the Democrats’ desire to lessen Dalrymple’s previous 4.05 percent across-the-board cuts, a move that likely will gain little traction with GOP lawmakers, some of whom pushed for even deeper reductions.

“Our plan is to leave it as is for now,” said Wardner, the senate majority leader. “We don’t disagree there are some things that need to be done.”

Wardner and Carlson, his House counterpart, would only hint at what will be included in the bill they are crafting with the governor. Wardner said he expects further cuts to most state agencies “in the ballpark of 2.5 percent.”

Dalrymple already has said the Department of Human Services, which administers and funds state social programs, would be immune from budget cuts during the special session, while the state Corrections Department would get “special consideration.”

Carlson said those crafting the GOP bill would look closely before making cuts to any important program.

“We will make sure what’s best in addressing those agencies having a difficult time,” he said.

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