On this week's Legislative Review, news director Dave Thompson talks with Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner (R-Dickinson) about holding the session during a pandemic, bonding proposals, education spending and other issues.
Watch a video of the conversation on our YouTube channel.
Dave Thompson: Welcome to Legislative Review from Prairie Public. I'm Dave Thompson, thanks for joining us. Our guest this time is the senate majority leader Rich Wardner, Republican of Dickinson. Senator thanks for doing this today.
Senator Rich Wardner: Dave, it's always a pleasure to talk to you and visit with you about issues in the state of North Dakota.
Dave: And you are the first guest we're using the Zoom platform on, so we'll do our own little test here too.
Sen. Wardner: So I'm kind of the guinea pig here?
Dave: You are.
Sen. Wardner: That's all right.
Dave: Let me just ask you because everything is a technology-driven this time much more so because of the COVID protocols. How do you think it's been going so far? I know it's only been a week in but what do you think so far?
Sen. Wardner: Well, right now things are going really smooth and fantastic. Everybody's adjusting, they've adjusted quickly and we're talking about first of all, our committee chairs and then our committee clerks. And then of course the IT staff from legislative council have done just an outstanding job of supporting us and making sure that we keep going. Actually we're getting used to it, I listened to the chairman and they say, well, are we ready for a testimony online? Sure. And so it's going smooth, better than anticipated.
Dave: Are People from greater North Dakota responding to online testimony? Are they presenting testimony online now?
Sen. Wardner: Well, they are. And there are people that have been involved in the legislative process. They've adjusted quickly. They've got their testimony in an hour before the committee starts. Everything is moving smoothly. Now those that are learning about the process they probably have a bit of a learning curve. But for example, I listened to a couple of people testifying today. They had all their stuff in and it went really slick.
Dave: And there's a different vibe in the capital. Normally you'd have a lot of people around but because of COVID protocols, there's not as many folks in the hallways, in the chamber, in the balconies, has that affected people, do you think?
Sen. Wardner: Well, it's kind of lonesome for us that have been here before. It was kind of a carnival atmosphere other years, especially as you got into the session, people moving around the hallways are full, not that way, this time partly because of the pandemic. And also because of the new technology that we have they don't have to be here. A lot of people are testifying from home, from their offices and from other places. So it's really great with the pandemic because we don't have a lot of people coming in in close quarters. And we're still doing the business of the people.
Dave: Senator from your perspective, at this point what do you think are the biggest issues that will be tackled this session?
Sen. Wardner: Well, as we take a look at, you know, always funding the general fund budget is a big issue. And I think we're going to be all right. North Dakota has made sure that they've set themselves up for success, not failure. We have our budget stabilization fund full. We're thankful for that. We have some money from Legacy if we need it to help us patch the hole from the decrease in funding from oil. So that will be a challenge. However, we do have some tools to work with. The other thing is we take a look at our legacy fund is now maturing and we've got earnings coming forth. We're looking at bonding and how we're going to bond and take care of some things. And I want to make sure that the viewers understand we're not just spending money to spend money, we've already promised that we are going to fund for example, the Fargo Diversion at 750 million. We've only done a little over 400 million. We still have our ways to go. Now the resources trust fund, which funds water projects across the state of North Dakota is not going to fill up like it normally does because the price of oil and the production is down. Therefore we need to keep those projects going. We can do it with bonding and we can do it with bonding. Because number one, we have a dedicated stream. There will be earnings coming from the legacy fund to pay him, and the cost of money to service the bonds is really cheap. In fact, it's less than 2% and it would probably be around 1.6%. So when you put 1.6% with inflation, it's better to keep those projects moving than to let them set.
Dave: I noticed that a lot of people saying that strike while the iron is hot right now because of the low rates, you can get a lot accomplished. And if you delay some of these projects for years and years and years, the cost keeps going up and up and up.
Sen. Wardner: That is correct. The inflation will get you. And you know, the thing is that the sooner we get for example, Minot Flood Control, get Fargo Diversion, we don't have to worry about a flood catastrophe happening in those communities. And I'm just telling you that if you, if that happens you have an economic generator that gets shut down when Minot flooded back in I think 2011. Then it shut down an economic engine for the state of North Dakota. The same one Fargo flooded back at the turn of the century. So it is good business to keep those communities going and they're growing and we got people coming in, we've got businesses locating there, It's a good thing.
Dave: Well, you do talk about bonding but there's been some resistance among some legislators to do bonding. I've heard some people say, Oh we can just save the money and pay for it later. But you're saying, this is not the time to save that money. You know, a strike when you can get it at a decent price and that the cost is least.
Sen. Wardner: Well, there's no question, you know, we could pay in cash as we go along, but again, those projects are gonna have to wait until that cash comes, therefore inflation steps in. And we got some situations where, let's take the Fargo Diversion. The cost of house insurance is high because they're still kind of in a flood plain. All of a sudden when that diversion is done, we have a difference in the premiums as far as housing insurance. So there's a lot of benefits, side benefits that we need to be thinking about too. I know that when it comes to water projects remember we usually only spend out of the resources trust fund. Now, can we use out of the, out of the Legacy Fund? Yeah, we can, but we're trying to make sure that the Legacy Fund earnings are going to fund things that are going to really affect the people of North Dakota and also legacy projects.
Dave: Still on the bonding issue, you have three competing proposals so far, you have the governor at $1.2 billion. You have the Republican plan at 1.1 billion and you've got the Democrat plan, which is a $2 billion. Is there enough? Do you think that you can reconcile all three?
Sen. Wardner: Well, I think so. If you take a look at all three, there's a lot of commonality between them. It's how you get them done. For example, in the one that's done by the legislature which I'm involved in, there's a lot more grants and we want to get money out to the local political subs to help get the economy going. The governor's plan, he has more loans in his, for example he has $700 million in loans in his package. The Senate and house have something in the way of about 700 million in grants going out, not as much as far as that. We want the money to go out there so that goes to work. He's asking them to pay it back. And then in the Democrat ones, they have a lot of things going out too, the Prairie dog which we have in ours, Prairie dog, doing some money and putting money into counties, cities, townships airports. Ours is a one-time, theirs would be one that would continue on if the oil doesn't come back. I don't know if we can afford to do that. We'll surely take a look at it. And so they have a lot of other human service type things in there. So there are some, again, some commonality. One of the things that I would say is common between all three, career in tech. Everybody feels that we need to move to career and tech education in our state. That's a good thing. And we can reconcile that. Also another is behavioral health. We got to deal with behavioral health, whether we like it or not, it's a drag on our society. It's a drag on our economy, but we've gotta do something to try to help people with addiction problems and other mental issues that we have. So there are, again, a lot of threads that are the same.
Dave: Going off your comment about behavioral health. One of the things that the governor is proposing is a new state hospital in Jamestown. And there's a lot of support for that in the Jamestown area and among the people in behavioral health. How do you feel about that?
Sen. Wardner: Well, I think if we can do it, we should. Now it's in both bills now. And the one that's the legislative bill, it's a grant type thing. And the governors, it's more of a partnership, a private public partnership that we would do a work out. I think we need to take a good look at that. You know, the governor has some really good things in his too, so we need to weigh them out. This is really the way legislation should work where you got a lot of ideas and you come forward. And I would like to point out that I think a leader Pollert over in the house, I think he's going to come up with his version of a bonding bill. So there will be another one. So this is going to be kind of exciting as we take a look at these things and see what we come out with in the end.
Dave: So what you're telling me then is that there seems to be less resistance toward bonding and that people are embracing it now, again, going back to the original strike while the iron is hot?
Sen. Wardner: Well, there are, and there are those that don't like bonding at all. There's no question we have those people in the legislature but we also have people that say, yeah, we're for bonding. And we're for certain things they feel that water projects need to be bonded, bridges need to be bonded and you know that the state to helped fund those, however they're not quite ready for the $1 billion bonding package plus which the other three have.
Dave: One thing I wanted to touch on in this interview is to ask you your perspective about executive orders. There's been some bills that have been introduced to try to ratchet back the governor's executive power, you know, in the wake of COVID-19. How do you feel about issue?
Sen. Wardner: Well, I think the legislature needs to be involved in those executive orders. The people have said, we want you involved. And of course we ourselves wanna be involved. And we have a couple of proposals in which the governor can do his executive orders but after 30 days, at some point he has to bring the legislature back to weigh in. Now we're not talking about ending all of them because there's a lot of executive orders that the governor has done that we need but there are some that are objectionable as far as the public has gone. And so therefore the legislature can weigh in on those issues and say, no, there are certain things, there's a couple items here, we don't think we should continue on and we should put an end to them. We're not going to end the executive orders totally. But we're going to control some of the orders that are being made by the governor as we go forward. And we have a bill in to do that.
Dave: And so, in other words, you just need a seat at the table because the legislature does control purse strings.
Sen. Wardner: That is correct. And just so everybody knows, both the house and the Senate have proposals that will do that.
Dave: One of the other things that I kind of noticed is that there's going to be some further discussion about some of the other social issues that are going on. There's an abortion bill that's out. Have you looked at that particular bill?
Sen. Wardner: Yes, I have. I think it probably goes a little bit too far. I happen to be a person that's pro-life and I've supported all the pro-life issues that have come through the legislature. But this one, I would have to say, I'm not real supportive of this particular one. And you gotta remember Dave, it was about three sessions ago, we had all the abortion bills or pro-life bills or pro-choice bills, whatever you want to call them, go through the session. And, you know, they're all gone now because they were the courts came in and said they were unconstitutional. We gave it a good try but now we gotta wait until you know there a better time to do it because right now what good does it do is to to put all this effort into them and have the courts rule them unconstitutional and all that work is for nothing.
Dave: There's also a number of bills concerning voting in North Dakota. I think there's more than a half a dozen of them that have been introduced about changing some procedures for absentee balloting. Have you looked at those and do you have a thought on those?
Sen. Wardner: No, I haven't. And most of our over in the house side so that's reason I haven't really taken a look at them yet. I got enough to do on the Senate side than to go through bills that we got coming through over here. But you know, people are concerned, after the last election people are concerned that it's going to be fair. And so we'll take a good look at them and anything we can do to make sure that our voting system has integrity in it. That's what wanna do. And that's what we'll be looking for.
Dave: I wanna go back to your behavioral health comment because one of the things that has been shown in the Schulte report and the followup reports is that there's a lack of providers, especially in Western North Dakota. Basically you get West of the Missouri, there are very few providers, if any. Is there efforts that you're seeing to try to shore that up somehow? I think the state hospitals got some proposals that are out there as well to get more providers into Western North Dakota.
Sen. Wardner: Oh, absolutely. I happen to be involved in my own hometown Dickinson trying to get people to come out there, providers to set up in Dickinson. There is no question. There's a void out in the West. We're hoping that the substance abuse vouchers that we did fund last time and we funded them at $8 million. And by the middle of the biennium, it was gone. So the governor put 17 million in there and I'm hoping that we can sustain that for this next biennium. And that will help with services out in the Western part of the state. So no question about it. And another little sidelight Dave with that is law enforcement ends up transporting lots of people with issues to Jamestown, to Bismarck, to Fargo. And so the political subs, counties, especially counties, are spending a lot of money that if we had a facility out in the West, they wouldn't have to.
Dave: Do you think it's going to be done through private providers out in the West? Perhaps the hospitals in Williston, Dickinson, some clinics or the hospital in Hettinger, things like that?
Sen. Wardner: Well, I think it has to be private providers but they have to work in partnership with the hospitals and clinics out there. And we did have a individual that was at the hospital that was really good about partnering with privates to bring in services and then the individual left. So when you talk about talent in your communities you miss people like that. And so, but we're not stopping. We're continuing. I know Williston is looking, I know Watford City, Dickinson, those far West communities are continuing to find ways to bring providers out there.
Dave: I would like to focus a little bit on K-12 education because the governor's proposal calls for flat funding for two years. Schools say, well, that's great, however, costs keep going up. Cost for teacher salaries, teacher negotiations, other costs, textbooks, that type of thing. Maybe even bus routes. I'm curious, are you looking for other pots of money to maybe bump that up? That per pupil payment things?
Sen. Wardner: Well, I guess, you know, I think we're gonna have to go through this biennium probably a little flat. I think we're going to try to get some increases. Remember there is a decrease in the number of students so there will be some extra money in the fund to help with some of those extra expenses. We do take care of K through 12 education. Remember that we have the common schools trust fund which continues to increase in it's earnings every biennium, you know, a lot of people don't realize it's kind of like a mini legacy fund and it's getting so that it does a lot of funding for K through 12 education. Plus we have the foundation aid stabilization fund which helps fund K through 12. All I can say is that K through 12 will not go backwards but I do think they will do more than even. They'll be a little bit, they're going to move forward but we got to get through this time when this pandemic and our economy is down, you know everybody's gotta be together on that. And we need the teachers and the education community to do their part in helping us get back on our feet.
Dave: What about higher education? What do you see in terms of, you know, the budget that the governor proposed is slicing back on that, reducing the funding formula for the college and universities. Where is that going? Do you think?
Sen. Wardner: I got a feeling we're going to reinstate the formula because I think it was working and most legislators feel that way. Will be interesting to hear what the governor has to say as far as why he thinks that we should change that formula. But there was a lot of work that went into the formula for higher ed. And I guess, I don't think we're ready to discard it yet.
Dave: In terms of the formula, we wanted to do a quick thumbnail, the formula is based on degrees granted, correct? Or degrees certificates? It's based on that.
Sen. Wardner: And credits. Credits. And you know, a lot of the institutions have gotten into a rhythm that they work on. They want to do a good job. And now to take that away really destroys their focus as far as their institution. There's no question that higher ed has some challenges but one of the areas, you know, we're hoping, our school and Dickinson, Dickinson State University is looking to do more career in tech because they're a dual mission school now, they've gotten that. And in the city of Dickinson, they purchased the Halliburton frack yard, which has five huge buildings in which both the public schools and the university will be able to have plenty of room to do career in tech. So I think we need to take a look at what job skills are needed in our workforce and go forward. And I think the higher ed has to do some adjusting to be able to do that. So all of that's involved in funding.
Dave: And that of course meets the needs of industry right now in terms of its career in tech.
Sen. Wardner: You're absolutely correct. And you'd be surprised. There are a lot of companies that are looking to move to North Dakota. They want to move out into the rural areas and because of technology, they are connected and they can do business from out here. That's why number one, our infrastructure and technology broadband is so critical. We got to have good roads. We got to have good education. And you know what? We also got to have good recreational opportunities, quality of life, and people are going to come here to live.
Dave: Well, you brought that up. I was going to ask you a question about the TR library. It looks like that might now be a goal in Medora. I know that you have been working to have it in Dickinson, that's where it started. Do you feel confident that this is going to go and this is going to be a good thing for North Dakota?
Sen. Wardner: Well, absolutely it is. And I'd get sent to the tourism sector but the big thing is that it's going to be located in Medora and it is gonna go, they have raised the money, the a hundred million dollars. That's what they needed in order to be able to access their earnings. And I want to emphasize that Dave the earnings of the 50 million that's going to be put away at the state of North Dakota and the Department of University and Lands. That's where it's going to be located. The 50 million will always belong to the state of North Dakota, but the earnings will be used to help with operations and maintenance of the library once it gets going and it's gonna and it's exciting and I think it's going to be a big addition to the state and it's going to be a big draw. South Dakota will have their four faces four presidents, but we're going to have the Teddy Roosevelt presidential library. And they're going to wanna just drive up Highway 85 and see that too.
Dave: Do you see any other projects like this that might be on the drawing board that might be approved during a legislative session or maybe later?
Sen. Wardner: No, not anything quite like that. I don't really see anything coming up like that. I just, wanna mention that we have another project in the state that I think is quite important and that is the unmanned aircraft because it affects not only energy but it also affects agriculture. And I think we're setting the table for the future that North Dakota is going to be a great producer of energy and it's going to be a great producer of agricultural commodities.
Dave: And you also are supportive and actually behind the agriculture center and ESU too.
Sen. Wardner: Absolutely the Ag Development Center. I get excited about that because I think that's gonna just revolutionize agriculture because right now they have a place called Harris Hall. It's a museum. And if we can get a modern place where we can showcase our Ag commodities, our crops, our meat commodities from animal agriculture, it's gonna have the Northern crops institute there. And we're hoping to put the trade office there. So now when these delegations Dave, come in from all over the world, we'll have a first-class facility, show them our first class products, and I think it's going to do a great job in promoting trade with other countries in the world.
Dave: So it doesn't sound like there's going to be much pushback on that. People have rallied around our big pillars of our economy. Agriculture is one of them, energy being one and perhaps UAS might be a third pillar.
Sen. Wardner: Absolutely. And so when you start talking about tourism, Theo Roosevelt Presidential Library is gonna help them. We've got The Ag Development Center, it's going to help agriculture. And of course we're working with a private concern to make sure that Coal Creek, the electric plant up at Underwood continues to go. And we're still promoting wind energy. We're promoting the gas that we have out in the West to help with electricity. And of course we got oil and coal. I don't know. We just work together, we're gonna have a great place in which we can produce these raw materials.
Dave: You mentioned working together, and the few seconds we have left, it doesn't seem like there's many partisan things going on right now. I suppose as the session goes on, you'll see some partisan divides, but you know, what I hear from the Democrats is they're working pretty well with Republicans, especially in the senate.
Sen. Wardner: Yeah, they are. They're working together. They have a good ideas that we've used it and we work together with them to get them and promote them. So right now I think North Dakota has a situation where everybody envies the fact that we can work together and work things out. No, we don't agree on everything but we find a way to find a solution. So I'm very proud of a what's going on up here.
Dave: Well, Senator thank you very much for your time. Our guest Senator Rich Wardner, the Senate majority leader, he's from Dickinson, North Dakota. He's a Republican. Thank you again for being here.
Sen. Wardner: Thank you, Dave.
Dave: This is Legislative Review from Prairie Public.