I spent yesterday in Bismarck talking with some legislators and other state officials who are in organizational mode for the upcoming session which begins shortly after the first of the year. They’re picking committee assignments, and seating assignments, and tomorrow they’ll hear Governor Jack Dalrymple’s recommendations for the state budget.
They aren’t expecting a lot of surprises. Legislators assume Dalrymple will increase the budget by around 24% to 26%. A few legislators hoped that Dalrymple’s budget accounting for this biennium would be a little more straight-forward than last biennium when roughly half of the state’s spending increase was hidden by routing that spending around the general fund.
As for what the legislators will do with that budget, the expectation is that legislators might mix around some of Dalrymple’s spending priorities but will largely stick close to his total spending number.
One area of spending that legislators seem unwilling to do is in the area of higher education. The University of North Dakota’s request for a $124 million medical building, being sold to taxpayers as “infrastructure,” is unlikely to get through the state House multiple legislators told me. They were also skeptical of the university system’s request for some 183 new employees, saying they’d prefer to see the universities meet their needs by reorganizing the staff they already have.
Of course, most of the legislators I spoke with are from the more conservative wings of both chambers. Feelings are undoubtedly different among the more left-leaning Republicans. I was asked if I’d be awarding the “RINO of the Week” award again during this session – apparently it had been a topic of discussion – and I said I’d make it happen.
Something that surprised me a bit, but probably shouldn’t have, was some resentment among legislators at Governor Dalrymple’s PSC choice. The legislators weren’t specifically critical of Julie Liffrig-Fedorchak, but the consensus opinion seemed to be that it was unfair to pass over long-time legislators like Rep. Blair Thoreson (re-elected in November) and former Rep. Duane DeKrey (who was seeking the appointment now that his term in the legislature is over). The legislators I spoke with said that both Governor Dalrymple and Hoeven before him were far to willing to award bureaucrats and staffers with appointments instead of picking people with policy experience from the legislative branch (something I happen to agree with).
I doubt this consternation will manifest itself in any overt way during the session, nor is it a particularly new complaint, so chalk it up to the usual friction between the executive and legislative branches.