- Associated Press - Thursday, April 27, 2017

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - The North Dakota Legislature ended its 2017 session Thursday amid a struggling economy that forced lawmakers in the once-thriving state to dampen spending for the first time in several years.

Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford, the North Dakota Senate’s presiding officer, hit the final gavel at 8:29 p.m. Thursday. House members officially completed their work at 8:12 p.m. after finishing a brief chorus of “Auld Lang Syne.”

The session lasted 77 days, just short of the 80-day maximum set by the North Dakota Constitution.

Lawmakers from both sides exchanged high-fives, handshakes and hugs after a marathon day that came to an end after approval of several spending measures that completed work on the Legislature’s $13.6 billion, two-year budget.

The budget includes about $4.3 billion in state general fund spending for the 2017-19 budget cycle that starts July 1. The general fund spending, which is financed mostly by taxes on sales, income and energy, is down about $1.7 billion from what was approved by lawmakers two years ago.

Slumping oil and crop prices forced the Legislature to re-evaluate spending plans throughout the session. A huge drop in North Dakota tax collections has had the state scrambling to make up for shortfalls to the state treasury since lawmakers adjourned two years ago. Expected revenue from tax collections has missed the mark by more than $1.4 billion since then due to a slumping economy.

Those shortfalls were plugged by draining a rainy-day fund, massively cutting most government agencies and skimming profits from North Dakota’s state-owned bank.

The Legislature’s Republican majority leaders, Fargo Rep. Al Carlson and Dickinson Sen. Rich Wardner, said in a statement the state was able to fund priorities without any tax increases.

“Despite facing one of the largest declines in revenue in state history, we balanced the budget through a combination of smart reductions and using some reserves,” the statement said.

“We did a pretty good job of managing the dollars we had,” Carlson told The Associated Press. “We had to dig deep and we did.”

GOP Gov. Doug Burgum said in a statement that “despite the unprecedented revenue shortfall we faced heading into this session, we were able to fund our priorities and balance the budget through sensible cuts, limited use of reserves and new initiatives that will streamline state government and make it more responsive to taxpayers.”

Democrats said many of the cuts came at the cost of social and other programs.

“These decisions were irresponsible because they imposed severe cuts to core services and eliminated proven, cost-effective programs that served our citizens well,” House Minority Leader Corey Mock of Grand Forks said in a statement.

Despite fewer dollars than in past sessions, lawmakers did bump spending about $6 million for the Department of Human Services, the largest agency in state government that administers hundreds of programs, including welfare, medical and heating assistance, and aid to the elderly. It has more than 2,100 employees and a record two-year, $1.3 billion general fund budget, which is financed mostly by taxes on income, sales and energy.

When lawmakers descended on Bismarck in January, the biggest priority besides dealing with declining revenue was the bitter dispute between Dakota Access protesters and law enforcement in the south-central part of the state.

North Dakota’s Republican-led and largely oil-friendly Legislature quickly introduced “emergency” bills aimed at the protest, including a measure that makes it a crime for adults to wear masks in most cases, and another that increases penalties for rioting. Those were among the first bills signed by Burgum, along with legislation to borrow more money from the state-owned Bank of North Dakota to defray law enforcement costs related to the protests.

The session’s last day is commonly called Sine Die, which means adjourning without setting another meeting.

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