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North Dakota legislative leaders cautiously eye session's end

“The Pioneer Family” statue seen in front of the North Dakota State Capitol on July 14, 2016, in Bismarck. Forum file photo

BISMARCK — North Dakota lawmakers are barreling toward the end of the 2019 session, with Republican majority leaders hoping to wrap by the end of next week.

"Right now, there's a few bumps out there, but I think we can work through them," Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said Monday, April 15. "I'm sure not going to bet my life on it, but I do think we can be done by the end of next week."

Monday marked Day 67 of the session, which is capped at 80 days. The Legislature adjourned on Day 77 in 2017, and next Friday would be the 76th day of the 2019 session.

Plenty of bills and dollars are still swirling in the Capitol hallways. Republican Rep. Jeff Delzer, the House's chief budget-writer, said the two chambers are about $140 million apart in general fund spending as lawmakers put the finishing touches on agency budgets for the 2019-21 biennium, which starts in July.

House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, said lawmakers "still have some tightening to do."

Top lawmakers cited budgets for the state's corrections system and the Department of Human Services, the largest state agency, as heavy lifts still left on the table. Also in play are proposals for funding the Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion, buying down state income taxes using Legacy Fund earnings and budgeting for the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library, a top priority of Gov. Doug Burgum.

The Senate is also expected to vote this week on one of two bills implementing the state's new voter-approved ethics rules.

But lawmakers have already agreed on levels for state employee raises, knocking down one major hurdle.

"I think we've got a lot of common ground, so it's just a matter of us getting that all melded together," said House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington.

House and Senate lawmakers are hashing out disagreements in joint conference committees between multiple daily floor sessions. The House held three floor sessions Monday, and the Senate is scheduled to hold two Tuesday.

But even as legislators grind through their final days in session, they're also bracing for unexpected roadblocks.

"Many times there's a surprise," said Republican Sen. Ray Holmberg, a longtime lawmaker who chairs his chamber's budget-writing committee.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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