Becker: Special session is over and 'it could have been worse'
Rick Becker is the founder and leader of the Bastiat Caucus of the North Dakota Republican Party and a member of the North Dakota legislature. He joins The Dickinson Press' opinion page as a guest columnist.
The special legislative session is over. The repeated phrase amongst conservatives seems to be, “Well, I guess it could have been worse.” Noteworthy topics include spending, tax relief, COVID mandates, and Critical Race Theory. The highlights follow.
SPENDING: We spent about $1B and left a little on the table. I guess that means the Republican supermajority spent a little less than Democrats would have. Most of the spending was in a single bill, which is problematic, because it leaves legislators wondering if they should vote yes because of the good parts, or no because of the bad parts. Some spending was frankly a good idea. Some of it was not. Much of it was corporate welfare, which Republicans are unfortunately well known to support. It included many tens of millions for higher education buildings - yes, the same higher ed with a shrinking student population. $150M in the bill is for a natural gas pipeline to transport gas from western ND to eastern ND. Although good in several aspects, the big problem is, in the words of a legislator supporting the spending, “$150M is a fraction of the final cost. We don’t know what the final number will be.” The state won’t own it, rather a private company will, and will profit from it. To paraphrase Nancy Pelosi, you’ll have to spend the first $150M to find out what it will actually cost. The big rub is that we didn’t need to spend that money now. We could have waited until the 2023 session. Had we done so, the legislators could’ve voted on specific spending in separate bills, and would have had additional information with which to make a deliberative, reasoned vote.
TAX RELIEF: The state will no longer tax Social Security benefits, and that’s great. Also, in light of the $1 billion Special Session spending bringing total spending to just about $18 billion, the legislature found its way to giving citizens a whopping $350 in tax relief for 2021 and 2022. The bill was originally for $500, but it was determined that it was too “expensive”. It’s seemingly easier to forgo tax cuts for North Dakotans than it is to give their tax dollars to companies for pipelines, drones, driverless tractors, ethanol production, and “clean sustainable energy”. I hate to complain about any tax relief, since it is so hard to come by, but this was pretty damn meager. Again, had we waited until 2023, we could have deliberated on bills that contrasted judicious spending with substantive permanent tax relief, possibly eliminating income tax or even property tax. Instead we got a temporary $350 tax credit. I joked that we should see how low we can make the tax credit, and still tell voters we provided “tax relief”.
CRITICAL RACE THEORY: A bill was passed which bans critical race theory in our schools. It was hard fought, with even a few progressive Republicans joining the Democrats to kill it. Teaching children that America is inherently racist, and being white is oppressive to others can’t entirely be prevented with this bill, but it was a step in the right direction.
VACCINE MANDATES/PASSPORTS: Two bills were allowed to be heard and voted upon. One was very much like what Montana passed, and seems to be working well for them thus far. It prevents an employer from “discriminating” against an employee based on vaccination status. It did not pass the House, although a good effort was made. The other bill passed both the House and Senate, and at the time of this writing awaits the Governor’s signature or veto. This bill did not prevent an outright mandate from employers, but it gave employees the right to be exempt from the mandate based not only on religious or medical grounds, but on philosophical or moral grounds. That is a huge gain for personal choice. On the other hand, in the event of an exemption, the employer can require weekly testing. In my opinion, it was still a big victory at that point. But then it was watered down. Higher Education doesn’t need to follow these rules, so they have the option to require students to be vaccinated. Sadly there are several other loopholes, dramatically limiting the “victory” of this personal choice bill. Finally, an amendment was added at the last moment to prevent the Department of Health from creating or using vaccine passports. This succeeded despite attempts to kill it coming from the governor’s office, the Democrats, and progressive Republicans alike. This was a hard fought victory, and makes the watered-down bill somewhat easier to accept.
The bottom line is this. I will try to see the glass one quarter full, and not three quarters empty.