Chet Pollert was right. The North Dakota Legislature managed to wrap up its special session in just five days. As majority leader in the House of Representatives, Pollert deserves credit, which he must share with his Senate counterpart, Rich Wardner of Dickinson, who shepherds a chamber that has grown as unruly as the House has more commonly been.
The session accomplished two important goals. It created new legislative districts and it blew through a billion dollars in just five days. Much of the heavy lifting of budgeting and redistricting was done ahead of the session. There were other developments, but none as significant as these.
Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, had an especially large role. He chaired the Redistricting Committee with his House counterpart, Rep. Bill Devlin of Finley. Holmberg also chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee. Rep. Jeff Delzer of Underwood is his counterpart in the House. These committees put in many hours ahead of the session.
The new district lines met some resistance, mostly from legislators whose political futures are imperiled by the changes. The new map shifts legislative power away from rural areas to growing cities and from the eastern part of the state to the fast-growing west. It also swept some of the Republican Party’s mischief makers into districts where they will face competition from more centrist legislators. What the new map does not do is shift power away from Republicans. The GOP grip on the state’s political system is in no danger of weakening as a result of this remapping.
Another important change is the creation of sub-districts in two districts with large native populations. Some legislators objected, but the argument that federal courts would invalidate the plan without the sub-districts was ultimately convincing. At first glance, sub-districts ought to favor Democrats, but a closer look suggests the results will be a draw. Dividing District 4, which contains the Fort Berthold reservation, likely will cost Republicans a seat. The incumbent there is Terry Jones, a fervent member of the right-leaning Bastiat Caucus. On the other hand, dividing District 10, which contains the Turtle Mountain reservation, will likely mean a Republican gain, because the native population will be the majority only in one subdistrict.
The really consequential change is in McKenzie County, which had greater population growth in the last decade than any other county in the United States. That means Oil Country will have greater representation than before, and that’s not limited to McKenzie County. Other districts in the northwestern part of the state were tightened up because populations in those districts grew and some parts were moved to other districts.
The biggest losers in the remapping effort are in the northeast, including Grand Forks County, where population increased but not by enough to save the one rural district in the county, which got pasted onto the Traill County district. This happened a bit farther west, as well, where districts grew larger because of population losses. The same thing happened in the southeast corner of the state. It’s too early to tell what the ramifications of this might be. That will depend on the candidates who come forward and those who win seats in the 2022 election.
The session’s other accomplishment was spending $1 billion in federal COVID relief funds. These became available through the American Rescue Plan passed early in the Biden administration. The deadline to use the money is several years away, but Gov. Doug Burgum urged lawmakers to spend it now on infrastructure and tax relief, arguing that infrastructure will be cheaper because interest rates are low, and the state is rich and can afford to rebate some of its wealth to taxpayers.
Lawmakers bought both arguments, but not without some hesitation. The governor’s tax relief plan means lower taxes by exempting Social Security benefits from taxation and giving every income taxpayer up to a $350 credit ($700 for couples) in each of the next two years. Some lawmakers had wanted to make the reduction in income taxes permanent.
The largest infrastructure items drew some opposition, too. One, an appropriation of $150 million as seed money for a natural gas pipeline to eastern North Dakota, faced opposition from other fuel suppliers, but it passed anyway – with an add-on to build a short gas line from Minnesota to Grand Forks in order to meet the needs of a corn milling plant that’s chosen to build here.
The Senate saw a last-minute attack on the next biggest infrastructure bill, for buildings on college campuses in Grand Forks, Minot and Bismarck. State Sen. Janne Myrdal of Edinburg tried to strike the funds, arguing that the decision should wait for the 2023 session. Her amendment was voted down.
The session began with a raucous demonstration on the Capitol grounds, a preliminary to a consideration of a batch of so-called “social” issues. These were aimed at mask and vaccine mandates and so-called “critical race theory,” which lawmakers ordered banned from the state’s classrooms. While these got a lot of ink and air time, they are of little real consequence. Educators can’t avoid teaching the truth of American history, which involves both slavery and genocide. These are issues that we Americans have to face – while holding on to another truth in our national history, which is that human rights are won. As for mask mandates and vaccinations: The sooner we each assume responsibility for our neighbors, the sooner we will be rid of this virus.
Here again it’s worthwhile to read and recognize the aspirations of the U.S. Constitution, which aspires to “a more perfect union,” suggesting that the United States didn’t start out perfect. We have to work at it.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.