BISMARCK — The North Dakota Legislature's Budget Section voted on Thursday, Aug. 13, to send out nearly $320 million in federal funds to state agencies, public colleges and localities for COVID-19 pandemic relief.
The 43-member interim Budget Section got an up-or-down vote on the distribution that was approved last week by the state's Emergency Commission.
The meeting Thursday marks the third time the Budget Section has convened to approve spending from the $1.25 billion received by the state through a massive federal aid package known as the CARES Act.
The federal funds, which must be spent on pandemic-related costs by the end of the year, have now been almost entirely allocated. However, more than $70 million of unspent funds could be doled out at future meetings of the commission and Budget Section.
Job Service North Dakota will receive the largest chunk of the newly distributed funding, with $100 million to restore its unemployment insurance fund to pre-pandemic levels. Job Service, which has paid out unemployment benefits to thousands of residents during the pandemic, has already received $310 million of the state's CARES Act funding for the same purpose.
Much of the remaining funds will go toward several state initiatives to boost COVID-19 testing as schools and colleges prepare to hold in-person instruction this fall. Gov. Doug Burgum has set a goal for the state to test 8,000 residents per day during the back-to-school period.
The state Department of Health will get a $20 million allocation for testing within the North Dakota University System and $10 million for testing in the K-12 system. Another $7.5 million would go to tracing close contacts of people found to have COVID-19 in the state's educational institutions.
A $12 million portion of the health department's allocation will go toward contracting out testing to private labs to bring the state's capacity up by 1,000 tests per day. The state lab in Bismarck has handled the bulk of the test samples taken throughout the pandemic.
The health department will also receive $5 million to replenish its medical equipment stockpile and about $32 million to cover testing and laboratory costs that the Federal Emergency Management Agency may not take on as previously expected.
The state's 11 public universities and colleges will receive more than $17 million, most of which would go toward improving ventilation systems. The funds allow the colleges and universities to install ionization equipment, which is thought to help purify air in indoor spaces where COVID-19 spreads more easily. The university system also made requests for other infrastructural and technology updates that the Office of Management and Budget rejected prior to the Emergency Commission's meeting last week.
About $59 million will go to local and county governments around the state. How the funds are used will be at the discretion of local leaders.
Several lawmakers, including Rep. Mike Nathe, R-Bismarck, suggested the state should mandate that local governments use the funds for property tax relief, but the Budget Section voted overwhelmingly to approve the funding and local discretion in how it's spent. Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said local and county officials should have control over the money because many have infrastructural issues to address.
Following a common theme for the Democratic-NPL lawmakers, Rep. Josh Boschee and Sen. Tim Mathern, both Democrats representing Fargo districts, lamented the process by which the CARES Act money has been distributed.
Most of discretion on how to divvy up the money lies with the all-Republican Emergency Commission, which includes Burgum, Secretary of State Al Jaeger, Wardner and three other legislative leaders.
Mathern and other Democrats called for a special legislative session to allow more lawmakers to have input on how the funds are allocated, but Republican leaders, who hold the authority to call a special session, rejected the move as unnecessary.
Boschee said Thursday the Legislature has not taken up its responsibility to make important funding decisions by leaving the Emergency Commission with so much power.
Senate Appropriations Chairman and commission member Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, pointed out that Gov. George Sinner and Democratic lawmakers created the manner in which federal funds are distributed between legislative sessions, but he noted that the amount of money they considered in the 1990s was far less.
Holmberg and House Majority Leader Chet Pollert said the Legislature should look at checking the authority held by the governor's office in the process.