End of the 65th legislative session
At the onset of the 65th legislative session, we said early and often that the Democratic-NPL caucus would be the voice of leadership you can trust. We dedicated this session not only to sharing information from the capitol, but also to listening to the concerns of real North Dakotans: farmers, laborers, parents, teachers, young people and senior citizens, just to name a few.
Now that the session has adjourned, we want to take this moment to share some of the successes and shortcomings of the legislature’s work.
From the beginning, the Democratic-NPL caucus set forth the goal of working in a bipartisan fashion to pass sensible, effective laws for North Dakota. We also vowed to hold the Republican majority accountable when they proposed ideas or policies that were not in the best interest of our citizens. Most importantly, we understood that trust is not built overnight, which is why our work defending the rights, privileges, and economic prosperity of all North Dakotans will not end with the final gavel.
Democratic-NPL lawmakers fought for continued funding for Medicaid expansion, which provides health care to over 18,000 of our citizens and keeps the doors open at 36 rural hospitals across the state. We worked with a bipartisan coalition to increase classroom innovation, maintain local control of schools, and forgive student debt for qualified teachers who are willing to work in remote school districts. We reinvested $7 million in alternatives to incarceration – such as addiction treatment, counseling, and education – which required no new spending and will reduce the future burden on taxpayers. And we led the fight to pass laws that protect children and adults who are victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.
Democratic-NPL lawmakers also stood firm against some of the most harmful and ill-conceived policies proposed during this session. We defeated a measure that would have rejected federal funding for schools and increased local property taxes. We pointed out the lack of accountability in an unnecessary school voucher system. And we opposed efforts to balance the budget by taxing senior citizens living in nursing homes, slashing Meals and Wheels, and rolling back other critical senior services.
The most immediate and contentious issue facing lawmakers was the state’s budget shortfall of over $1.5 billion. On this, we did not see eye-to-eye with our Republican colleagues. The majority’s approach to closing the budget gap was irresponsible as they cut or eliminated proven, cost-effective programs that are desperately needed across our state, such as behavioral health. The majority’s approach was unfair as they chose to hold corporations harmless while hiking property taxes and asking rural towns, working families, and senior citizens to make deep sacrifices. And the majority’s approach was unsustainable because they drained North Dakota’s savings accounts and used $825 million in one-time funding that will not be available to close future shortfalls.
We’re often asked how we ended up with a $1.5 billion shortfall in the first place. Yes, North Dakota is suffering from a depressed economy, low oil and crop prices, and sagging retail sales. But this is not the entire story. Beginning in 2009, against the objections of Democratic-NPL lawmakers, the majority steadily cut taxes for corporations. To be clear, these weren’t tax cuts for mom-and-pop stores. Over 80 percent of these tax breaks benefit large, out-of-state corporations and shift costs back to working families and small, main street businesses. In 2015, again against our objections, the majority cut the oil extraction tax from 6.5 percent to 5 percent, drastically reducing revenues even further. According to the Republican-run tax department, the combined effect of tax breaks for oil companies and corporations is costing our state $470 million in this biennium alone – revenue that could have prevented many of the painful cuts and property tax increases we are now facing.
The debate over North Dakota’s budget shortfall will not end with the conclusion of the legislative session. Democratic-NPL leaders strongly believe that working families across the state deserve more property tax relief, not less. We believe policymakers need to invest more in economic development and support proven methods to diversify our economy, instead of eliminating economic and workforce development programs. Despite these differences in priorities, however, we want to thank our Republican colleagues for the areas where we did find common ground to work together throughout the session. Our democratic process is stronger when we have rigorous, civil debate, and when lawmakers on both sides come to the table with a willingness to work together. We look forward to building upon our work as we bring forth our ideas – and, yes, continue to debate the issues – that will build a stronger North Dakota for all our citizens.
Dem-NPL Senate Leader Joan Heckaman and House Leader Corey Mock
As the legislature leaves Bismarck, we are returning home with a balanced budget and no tax increases.
This session has proven the importance of exercising fiscal responsibility and saving for lean times. Despite facing one of the largest declines in revenue in state history, we were able to fund our priorities and balance our budget through a combination of smart reductions and using some reserves.
Early in the session, we passed legislation responding to the Dakota Access pipeline protests, focusing on the safety of our citizens and law enforcement. Months later, the pipeline has been completed and our state’s economy has seen an increase in oil and gas production.
We also responded to budget constraints with an inventive approach to making government more efficient. Legislators brought forward proposals to streamline state agencies and eliminate duplicative services, and we redoubled our efforts to use technology to simplify government services and save taxpayer money.
Our top priority, as always, was investing in our state’s greatest asset: our young people. Although most areas of state government were trimmed to balance the budget, we ensured that our students and teachers were not subject to those reductions. We also prioritized caring for our most vulnerable, restoring funding for long-term care that had been targeted for cuts.
We responded to North Dakota’s addiction crisis by increasing access to behavioral health services. We passed several criminal justice reform bills that go hand-in-hand with these behavioral health efforts. By rethinking punishments for lower-level offenses, we can steer people toward the treatment they need while fixing our prison overcrowding problem.
One of our major legislative accomplishments was the state takeover of county social services funding. This plan will eliminate 20 mills of levy authority in every county, resulting in permanent property tax reform. With this bill’s passage, the State of North Dakota is now contributing over $1.36 billion toward local property tax relief, or 39.1% of what would have been the responsibility of North Dakota property owners.
Through the hard work of legislators from all across the state, we are leaving the Capitol with a positive framework for the future of our state.
GOP House Leader Al Carlson and Senate Leader Rich Wardner
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