Legislature eyes early end to session

Party leaders intend to save days for redistricting, COVID relief funds

By Brayden Zenker, NDNAEF

BISMARCK – Party leaders say they intend to end the 2021 North Dakota legislative session from three to 10 days early, saving those days for a short fall session to vote on redistricting measures and to allocate relief money from the most recent federal COVID relief package.

The state Constitution limits the assembly to 80 days every two 

“There is going to be more work that has to be done this time than there has been in the past,” Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford, said.

Due to delays caused by the pandemic, 2020 Census data used for redistricting may not be available to state governments until Sept. 30. In the past, redistricting numbers became available to state governments in April, a six-month difference. This is a concern for party leaders who want to have redistricting done before January 2022, when legislators start preparing for 2022 elections.

The redistricting bill, HB 1397, was heard in the Senate Political Subdivisions Committee on Friday, March 26. House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, is the main sponsor. 

During testimony, a representative of the state newspaper and broadcasters associations urged that redistricting plans be made available to the public two weeks before committee hearings. As the bill stands, those documents would not be public record until the first public hearing of the redistricting committee.

“It’s not fair to hide these plans from your constituents,” Jack McDonald said. “We believe a good compromise would be to make these proposed drafts public at least two weeks prior to the meeting at which they are presented.” 

Nicole Donaghy, executive director of North Dakota Native Vote, proposed amending the bill to establish an independent redistricting committee and single-member legislative districts based on communities with similar interests. The amendment would also require consultation with all Tribal Nations and that committee meetings be held in a variety of locations, including on reservations. 

“Native American voters have been harmed through discriminatory redistricting practices,” Donaghy said. “I hope we can accomplish a fair method that will recognize Native American people and our unique role that we play in the political discourse of this state and country.”

The committee took no immediate action on the proposed amendments or the bill.

Party leaders in both chambers say they expect to add legislative districts in Bismarck and Fargo at the expense of districts in rural North Dakota. 

“There is no doubt we will probably lose one or two districts from the rural going to the bigger cities,” Pollert said.

Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said he expects that, due to changes made to districts, some legislators will have to run again to keep their seats.

“Taking out the ones that have to run anyway, there will be at least another six or seven that will have to rerun,” Wardner said.

However, there has been talk about increasing the number of legislative districts in North Dakota.

“I’ve been in the mindset that maybe 47 is not our magic number for the number of districts,” Heckaman said.

House Minority Leader Joshua Boschee, D-Fargo, would support adding to the number of legislative districts to avoid creating extremely large rural districts. A few now stretch over several lightly populated counties.

“The advantage may be 49 districts, so rural districts can get smaller and have stronger representation,” Boschee said.

Spending new relief money

As well as having to deal with redistricting, the state will be receiving $1.89 billion from the most recent COVID relief package. Party leaders want to give the entire Legislature an opportunity to weigh in on how those federal aid dollars will be used, instead of leaving decisions to the Budget Committee. 

The relief money will come with certain requirements from the federal government on how the money will be used, and leaders are waiting for more information on that. “We’re not sure how we can use it,” Wardner said.

Heckaman said she would like to see the Legislature take an active role in deciding how state agencies use funds appropriated to them, being “a little more hands-on than we have been in the past with the CARES Act money.” 

Pollert said he agrees that the Legislature needs to have oversight over how state agencies use the money allocated to them.

“We have to make sure when (the money) goes into those agencies’ budgets that they aren’t an ongoing expense,” Pollert said. “There is no way our state could afford to continue down that path.”

Boschee said the money should be used for “big, bold” initiatives to increase the well-being of North Dakotans.

“If we’re just going to use it to keep doing the same things we always do, it’s not going to do much,” Boschee said. “So how do we use this shot in the arm to benefit all North Dakotans?”