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North Dakota Legislature passes commerce budget

BISMARCK -- North Dakota lawmakers gave final approval Thursday to the state Commerce Department budget, restoring Centers of Excellence and providing child care funding.

The Commerce Department's budget provides $3.1 million for child care grants for workforce development, quality improvement, capacity building and technical assistance. The Department of Human Services will award the grants.

Rep. Kathy Hawken, R-Fargo, called it a positive day for the child care industry.

"I am absolutely thrilled and thankful to the people who worked so hard over all the years to get to the point where we are today," she said.

The bill also allocates $12 million for Centers of Research Excellence. This provides $4 million for grants related to limited deployment-cooperative airspace projects, with $2.7 million for the University of North Dakota and $1.3 million for North Dakota State University.

Another $4 million each will go to NDSU and UND. Of UND's money, $3 million is for Grand Forks Air Force Base realignment grants for infrastructure or enhancement of economic development and employment opportunities.

Sen. Tony Grindberg, R-Fargo, said he wanted more money for Centers of Excellence, but said the bill is a reasonable compromise. The Senate passed the bill on a 40-7 vote with no discussion. The House easily passed the bill on a 69-18 vote.

The budget allocates $1.5 million for workforce enhancement grants. There is also $1 million for investments in startup technology-based businesses, $750,000 for tourism infrastructure grants and $300,000 for the Bismarck IDEA Center, a not-for-profit organization assisting individuals with business ideas.

The budget includes $600,000 to help acquire the antiballistic missile site in Nekoma. There is also $150,000 for the American Indian Business Development Office.

The compromise bill sets aside $150,000 for an electronic portfolio pilot project at Valley City State University and the North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton.

The multimedia website would allow students to showcase their education and skills to potential employers.

In addition, $50,000 is provided for the North Dakota Economic Development Foundation 2020 and Beyond initiative. Private and public officials will study successful models of other states and countries for creating economic growth to see if they could be applied here.

The committee will also evaluate the effectiveness of programs and investments in the state designed to develop the state's workforce and to attract and retain businesses. Another goal is to consider what new investments in infrastructure and changes to taxes and regulations could be made to increase the state's standing as a business-friendly state.

Operation Intern received $900,000. Legislators also changed the application process so companies can apply for funding more than once per biennium, Grindberg said.

Continuing the biofuel blender pump incentive program is also part of the final bill. The Department of Commerce will provide cost-share grants of up to $20,000 per retailer to install biofuel blender pumps and up to $14,000 to install associated equipment, including the piping systems and storage.

The conference committee eliminated a state energy director from the budget, a position requested by the governor.

The bill also no longer includes a study of gas flaring issues, but now has a study of early childhood services provider training and assistance. Another study about the impact of future population growth on state and local government revenues is included.

The total Commerce Department budget is $130 million, including $45.8 million in total general fund money.

The bill now goes to the governor for his signature.

Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co.

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