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Budget battles remain as end of North Dakota’s session nears

April 1, 2021 GMT

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota lawmakers wrestling with where mountains of money will be spent in the biggest proposed budget in state history agree on one thing as the legislative session draws to a close: The hard part has just begun.

Lawmakers always fight over money and this year it is particularly notable, partly because the Legislature has about $1 billion more cash than expected based on new tax collection estimates. That’s in addition to a possible billion-dollar bonding proposal, and an expected $1.9 billion from the federal government in coronavirus aid. The possible infusion of cash has lawmakers coming up with even more spending ideas and backroom budget battles than usual.

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“Our budget has a lot of balls up in the air at this point,” Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner said Wednesday.

The Legislature’s proposed two-year budget, including federal aid, is a record $15.6 billion, including $5 billion in general fund spending. The state’s current two-year budget, including federal aid, is $14.7 billion. The budget represents about $4.9 billion in state general fund spending for the 2019-21 budget cycle that ends June 30.

The general fund portion of the budget is spent on an assortment of programs, including education and human services.

North Dakota Republicans control both chambers of the Legislature. GOP House and Senate budget writers currently are trying to put priorities ahead of wishful spending, House Majority Leader Chet Pollert said.

Pollert said this session represents some of the toughest spending choices he’s seen in his two decades in the Legislature.

“It’s the same fight but we have more dollars to fight over,” he said.

Some battles already have begun.

The North Dakota House last month slashed by almost half a landmark $1.1 billion proposed bonding package aimed largely at financing infrastructure projects across the state. Budget writers in the Senate have aimed to restore much of the money, and that may lead to a potential showdown between the chambers as the session heads into its final weeks.

Wardner, the Senate majority leader, said he expects the final proposal from his chamber could mostly mirror the House plan, with $250 million removed for loans for carbon capture projects at the state’s five coal-fired power plants. Wardner said the projects will likely still be funded by other yet-to-be disclosed state revenue sources.

Legislative budget writers have a particularly tough task this session, as they anticipate a rosier revenue forecast, bonding, and the federal coronavirus aid, said Senate Appropriations Chairman Ray Holmberg.

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Lawmakers are being pressured with spending demands because there is a perception “we have free money,” Holmberg said.

The entire federal coronavirus aid is expected within a year but is not part of the state’s overall spending plan at present. Budget writers are still seeking guidance on how the federal money may be spent, or if it could supplant budget funding from state revenue sources.

House Appropriations Chairman Jeff Delzer said the federal aid is “creating some challenges on how it is to be used.”

Budget writers said the money will be prioritized for one-time funding projects. Delzer said the funds must be used in a way that “won’t affect our ongoing budget.’