On this week's Legislative Review, the guest is House Minority Leader Josh Boschee (D-Fargo). We'll be discussing the various bonding plans for infrastructure, suggestions for spending new federal COVID relief money, the Democrats' pushing for family leave, and the challenges of having a Legislative session during a pandemic.
Watch a video of the conversation on our YouTube channel.
Dave Thompson: This is "Legislative Review" on Prairie Public. I'm Dave Thompson. Thanks for joining us on our radio and digital platforms. Our guest today as the House Minority Leader, Representative Josh Boschee of Fargo. Representative Boschee, thank you for being here.
Representative Josh Boschee: Dave, always good to be with you and the listeners and viewers of Prairie Public.
Dave: I know we're very early in the session, but there there seems to be, oh, I'd say maybe a divide over one of the big issues, the bonding bill. What's your perspective on that?
Rep. Boschee: Well, first and foremost, the Democratic Caucus, we introduced a bonding bill, actually this summer as part of our call for a special emergency session to address the issues impacting the state from COVID-19. And so, our bill that we introduced this session includes resources for taking out one time money, borrowed at a super low interest rate, that we can use for water projects, for roads and bridges, for school construction. And what makes ours unique to our Republican colleagues is the fact that ours has affordable housing as a part of that. So, getting that out of there, I think what's great is that there's certainly some agreement amongst legislative leaders that there's something that should be done. We'll spend the next 70 some days talking about how much.
Dave: And I think that's the problem right now is there seems to be some disagreement over the amount. The governor wanted 1.2 billion. You have a $2 billion proposal, if I'm remembering correctly. The original Republican proposal was 1.1 billion and now it's down to 800 million. And it seems to be really a super focused on water projects. So, I know we haven't really started the discussions in committees yet, but any thoughts about where this might go or the next few weeks?
Rep. Boschee: Well, there are a number of House Republicans who are concerned about using bonding as a finance mechanism. Our cities and our counties have been doing this for decades. The state has not so much. And so, I think the shifting we're seeing, at least the GOP version of the bill is to try to get some more of those House Republicans on board. And by narrowing the focus to water projects, what that really helps us do is the fact that since we have low oil revenues right now, that's the resource that fills up the water resources trust fund, which is what we use to fund projects like the FM Diversion, Red River Water Supply, Minot Flood Diversion Program and a number of other water projects throughout the state. So by bonding for some of those now that makes us less dependent on that oil re revenues and allows that fund to recover so that smaller communities and other projects throughout the state can get prioritized as well.
Dave: So you're kind of in the camp that you're pre optimistic there will be some kind of bonding issue?
Rep. Boschee: I think so, yep. I mean, the signals are there that everyone's got a bonding idea. We'll be parceling how much that is and what does that mean for the longterm impacts to North Dakota. But again, cities and counties have been doing this. I'm a real estate agent. Our people are refinancing their homes because of recorded low interest rates. So the state of North Dakota should take advantage of that as well.
Dave: One of the other issues, well, a couple of other issues that revolve around education. One concerns is that K-12 funding, which in the governor's budget is flat, it's flat for two years. And I know there's some angst among school districts about flat funding, because they say there's inflationary pressures. You have teacher contracts coming due. And even Rich Wardner, this Senate Majority Leader who was on last week said, he thought there would be more money perhaps for K-12. Where are you coming down that?
Rep. Boschee: Yeah, certainly, our caucus and in agreement with the Republicans is that, we have to do more for K-12. Our teachers have been heroes along with a lot of other frontline workers throughout this pandemic. And we learned, I think even more than we expected, how much we depend on schools to keep businesses open, to keep our communities thriving, to give parents the opportunity to focus on their jobs while their kids are getting a great education. So we need to make sure that we're supporting our schools' K-12 education. You're right, there are those factors coming up with contract negotiations. We already know that a large number of teachers are saying that they're not sure they're gonna come back after the school year. So, it'd be a great signal for the legislature to provide some increases that school districts can put towards not only teacher salaries, but the much needed resources when it comes to behavioral health supports, making sure that kids are getting the resources they need and their families as well.
Dave: To follow up on that point about teachers maybe not coming back. I think there was a survey by North Dakota United that said, "Maybe 50% might not come back."
Rep. Boschee: Yeah its alarming
Dave: It is very alarming. Plus, you already had the problem that school districts were looking for substitute teachers and couldn't find it. A lot of that was COVID related, of course. We're slowly seemed to be kind of improving but maybe not to the point where people are more confident coming back.
Rep. Boschee: Right, again, I think our teachers, our nurses, there's a lot of professions out there that have been maxed out and we, this isn't, we have to signal. We can't just depend on the federal government to come in and send the resources to the state. We have resources that we have to maximize. And that comes down to the Foundation Aid Stabilization Fund and the Common Schools Trust Fund when it comes to K-12 education.
Dave: And there's also concern that maybe some students might have to go through some extra remedial things because of the thing that are online and out of the classroom, that they may have missed out on some things. Are you hearing the same things?
Rep. Boschee: Certainly, more so hearing that from parents back home. And the concern about, is my eighth grade gonna be prepared for ninth grade after a year and a half of some form of transitional education? Our school districts, our teachers and our parents have really stepped up to the call. And so, I think what we're seeing is some creativity that's happening at the local district level about, I think there's school districts that are doing Saturday academies. There's some school districts that are talking about doing more summer school as an opportunity for kids to catch up and maybe even get ahead so that they're even better prepared for the next grade
Dave: Along the education front and tying back to bonding, the bonding bill seems to have these centers for technical education still in there. And I know Fargos are working on one, Bismarcks got one, Dickinson is working on one. There are plans to fund that out of the bonding, correct? At least some of them have done.
Rep. Boschee: Correct, whether out of bonding or using Legacy Funds as some of the buckets are being developed around. There's a lot of conversation happening around, we have traditional classroom education, but the role that career and tech ed plays in helping some, if not many students prepare for the workforce that exists in North Dakota. And I think one thing that you'll find really interesting, Dave, and I think the listeners or viewers will, is that there's even more conversations happening about competency-based education. So when you think about those students who maybe don't complete school, maybe they have to work part-time or full-time to help take care of their family or their siblings, are there ways that we can provide credit for the jobs that they're doing or the other priorities they have in their life. So that they can still get their GED or high school equivalency. So that's not something that holds them back in the future. So, a lot of creativity innovation happening in K-12 and we're glad to be a part of those conversations.
Dave: Since you mentioned competency-based education, other proposals on the table that you're seeing or maybe your caucus is developing or Republicans are developing, are you seeing things like that?
Rep. Boschee: Absolutely. I know there are some national foundations and groups that are interested in supporting that work here in North Dakota, but Superintendent, Baesler and a bipartisan group of legislators have been working on the idea for several years. So that's similar to the bonding. There's a lot of ideas out there. I assume something will come out in the end. It's just a matter of what that'll be. What's important for me in the vote, my neighbors back home is something that provides flexibility and provides that opportunity for students who may not traditionally finish school but can have an opportunity elsewhere.
Dave: I need to switch gears to higher education because the governor propose about 7% or more in cutting the formula for higher education, there's not a lot of support within higher education for it. And I'm talking to members of both parties and they're saying, they're going to try to get that formula fully funded if that's possible. What do you come down on that?
Rep. Boschee: Well, there was an Interim Higher Education Committee that worked for the last year and a half to address the funding formula. And they've continued to review that. That was work that was done, and not necessarily recognized in the governor's proposal. So, I'm pretty confident the legislature is gonna try to make sure that we're investing in our higher education systems. We know that the cuts that they have received over the last several biennium. There's really not much more to cut. When I talk to faculty and staff and students back at North Dakota State University which isn't my backyard, there are labs that aren't open anymore because they don't have the techs to provide them. There aren't support staff to help faculty so they can go do their research or go in their classroom. And that's something I think we really need to talk about, is when do we make these cuts we don't invest, it's taking classroom time away from students and it lowers their outcomes of their education. And so, as we're talking about research and innovation and the investments, we wanna make from Legacy Fund dollars into our higher ed institution and into private businesses, we should also be talk about how does that help support the mission of these institutions from an education standpoint.
Dave: There was a proposal two years ago by the Valley Prosperity Partnership and the two research universities, UND and DSU, to put some money into a fund for research but not only for UND and DSU but the entire system. I have not seen a bill on that but I've been hearing some rumblings on it. Can you tell me, is there a bill coming or are you aware of something that might be coming down on that?
Rep. Boschee: Yeah, I know there was a lot of conversations before the session about a similar bill to last session. And I thought that was a Senator, Ronald Sorvaag who sponsored that out of North Fargo. But I actually, the bill sponsor for House Bill 1275 which is our Legacy Fund priorities. And in that is a research and innovation fund, which would take about 10%, it's either 10 or 15% of the earnings each biennium and put into a fund so that our institutions of higher education, not just the research institutions, but the two year schools, the tribal colleges throughout the entire system, to create an infrastructure of research that helps our local communities as well as our statewide economy.
Dave: Now that bill has not appeared in committee yet, right?
Rep. Boschee: It has not, I think they're waiting for the Senate deadline to schedule some of those to see what some of those competing ideas might be.
Dave: This could be something to watch, your proposals, the other proposals for bonding, they're all going to come together, I have a feeling, some kind of maybe amalgamation of some sort.
Rep. Boschee: I agree. And that's a testament to the work, I think the four leaders have done last session going through this pandemic. And now is that, we're not fighting about a lot of partisan issues. There's a lot of big rocks that we recognize need to happen. It's just a matter of sometimes the dollars and cents of that, but the idea moving forward is there. And so, that's the pleasure I have of working with Representative, Pollert and Senator, Heckaman and Senator, Warner, is that we make a pretty good team and we're working well and moving things forward.
Dave: I know you all have your own kind of priorities, but in the end, at least the way I've seen it, you really do meet quite a bit in the middle on a lot of priorities.
Rep. Boschee: You are right, I think a lot of the headlines the last couple of weeks are all the what I call distraction bills. The bills that have some interesting ideas and in some cases, very harmful ideas to North Dakotans. And so, those will go through the committee process. That's the beauty of North Dakota, is every bill gets a vote. Nothing can get hid by its chairman or a majority leader or minority leader can keep something from moving forward. Every legislator, every community gets to have their voice. But once we get past this first month and those bills, hopefully have their swift defeats, then we'll be much more focused on things like the budget. And how do we take care of teachers and our healthcare and our essential workers throughout the state.
Dave: Has there anything surprised you about some of these bills that you say they're distraction bills?
Rep. Boschee: Yeah, I think first and foremost, the amount of them. A number of them are coming from what's known as the Bursty Yacht Caucus within the Republican House Caucus. And they don't seem very well thought out. They're not presented in a way that are to help North Dakota move forward. If nothing else, they put a stain on us. Now at a time when we are trying to recruit workforce, to retain talented students, I don't think they help with that mission. So, look forward to their defeat and moving onto the big issues.
Dave: And the big issues are going to be a lot of financial issues, plus a lot of direction issues.
Rep. Boschee: Right.
Dave: They're talking, one of the bills that the majority has put on the table, and I guess there is bipartisan support for it, would be to invest some of the Legacy Funds in North Dakota. Is that something your caucus is getting around?
Rep. Boschee: Yes, Yep. We we're having conver... Excuse me. We're having conversations with the majority party about that. Last session, Senator Heckaman had a very similar bill that would have taken a portion of Legacy Fund investments put it back in communities in North Dakota first. So, that is certainly something we would get behind and we'll continue those conversations.
Dave: And of course, this is the concept and I suppose the devil's in the details, although, a lot of that goes into the Investment Board, the State Investment Board is going to make some decisions on that. Are there any particular things that you'd like to see that money used for perhaps, that 10 to 20%?
Rep. Boschee: Yeah, I think first and foremost, ways to buy down infrastructure programs throughout the state. So much of our roads and bridges are probably taxpayers'. And that's the number one concern we hear from our neighbors. And so, if we can get even lower rates that the cities and the counties can borrow against, that creates a sustainable borrowing, just a borrowing force going forward.
Dave: I know, and then there was a goal that appeared this week by one of the Bursty Yacht Caucus that said, "If you're going to do bonding, you have to do it on a statewide vote. You have to take to a statewide vote." I thought that probably won't get a lot of traction, perhaps, but they're still as a group in the house especially who just doesn't like the idea of bonding.
Rep. Boschee: Right, yeah. And first thing I would ask them is, have they refinanced their home or bought a new home in the last year? And the answer is probably, yes. Because we know these record interest rates benefit our personal pocket books. They should benefit the taxpayers as well.
Dave: Of your caucus's priorities, what should we be watching over the session at least it'll crossover in terms of advancing those priorities? What are they and how do you advance them?
Rep. Boschee: Yeah, I think first and foremost this is a conversation we've been having for a couple of years around, creating a system for businesses to invest in paid family leave for North Dakota workers. Again, we are at a time where we are seeing more and more people working virtually. And so, by setting aside a program that can help small businesses and large businesses alike, compete for talented workforce to support families when they're have a newborn child, taking care of an aging parent or they themselves are dealing with some sort of unfortunate illness, paid family leave is a great resource that we can have in North Dakota. And we have systems like WSI and the Legacy Fund to help get those things jump-started. Beyond that, it would be our Legacy Fund projects that we're looking at investing in North Dakota first. Early childhood education, supporting K-12 programs, behavioral health investments, especially in Stabilization Fund, so that we can save for a rainy day in that aspect. So we're really looking at how do we benefit North Dakotans first, and looking at that grassroots level.
Dave: I'm glad you brought up behavioral health because there are a couple of things, it's a two part question. Number one, in the Republican's $800 million bonding bill, the bonds for a new State Hospital in Jamestown, gone. I haven't seen anything really too much but there's been a lot of talk about, how do you get behavioral health professionals to move to Western North Dakota? And who do you partner with in the Williston, in the Dickinson? Basically West of the Missouri, to get behavioral health services out there, and the people out there are crying for behavioral health.
Rep. Boschee: Yeah, I think, first and foremost, I advocate of the idea that we do put centers and resources throughout North Dakota, not just one facility in the middle of the state that families and people have to travel to. So, as you said, the second part of the question is how do we get folks to to move to Western North Dakota, and to live in those communities and help provide these services? And I think that's a conversation some of those communities have to have with themselves in terms of, what type of quality of life opportunities are they providing? How is the community supporting this type of workforce? And that the state can be a partner in that and how we fund those things. But we're also seeing a significant expansion of telehealth. So the opportunities of, you may not have to live in a community that provides those services, but if they're provided in the state, accessing them, as you and I are having this conversation, through a video phone call.
Dave: So you think that telehealth is possible in behavioral health? And probably not only possible, but might be proven?
Rep. Boschee: Right, yep, and we're seeing that, actually, Dr. Wunderlich and some other researchers out of Sanford Health and the Neuropsychiatric Research Institute, have been doing a lot of good work on that and have been presenting some good information to us. Now, the big issue becomes about, making sure folks have broadband, making sure that folks have the technology to be able to receive those types of services. And that's where we're seeing the insurance providers show up and say, they recognize that. It's an effective and affordable way to be able to deliver health care. And so, they're stepping in and helping with that.
Dave: Now, there seems to be broad agreement on that, not only among legislators, but among providers too, that this is a distinct possibility.
Rep. Boschee: Absolutely, the biggest concern that providers have, and I think it's a legitimate concern is, that they're not being reimbursed at the same rates or their fear of the reimbursement rates being reduced. So then again, it becomes a disadvantage to people who access their health care through telehealth or live in rural parts of the state. If you have providers who do not want to then accept those rates, are we gonna have an access issue again?
Dave: And that's the real issue, is access. And that you hear the crying out, as the Schulte reports several years ago and other reports have said, "Judges sometimes sentence people to jail because that's the only place they can get behavioral health services." And now you're saying that there are a work arounds and that's bad phrasing, but there are ways to try to solve this using technology, using, like what we're doing with the Zoom call right here, to provide that services.
Rep. Boschee: Yep. Absolutely, especially if it's, an introduction healthcare conversation, someone's not feeling well, they wanna check in with someone. They don't have to drive 90 miles to be told, "It's something you shouldn't have to worry about, or it's something you need to get in the car and get here or we'll send someone to come pick you up." So it's a great entry point into healthcare for folks. And again, I think affordable and accessible. You think about the number of families that do some sort of healthcare treatment that requires multiple visits. This might be, telehealth is an opportunity to do same quality of visit but doesn't require overnight stays or missing work or kids missing school. So, I think, again, innovatively, it's providing a lot of opportunities. We just wanna make sure that the access is there, and it's equitable in terms of level of care.
Dave: Since we're talking a little bit about technology, I would like to get your opinion about how the session is going? It's a different feel up there because the hallways are lot less crowded, a lot less people around, but it sounds like committees have been able to accept testimony via the internet.
Rep. Boschee: Yeah, it has been a great advancement, I think there's been definitely increased access. North Dakotans no longer have to take off a full day of work to travel to Bismarck, to testify in person. They certainly can and are encouraged to if they feel safe to do so. But yeah, otherwise they get to beam in through a meeting link they receive if they the key is that they have to RSVP ahead of time. So that's an extra step. So you can't necessarily just show up and think you can present. So it takes a little bit of work and diligence on folk's part. But yeah, I was part of a bill hearing yesterday where a woman from Fargo beamed in and told her testimony, gave her five minutes, answered some questions, and she was probably able to go back to the rest of her day after that, but provided important insight to that conversation. So, it's going really well. Legislative Council is starting to provide us some data showing us how many people are observing each committee, but not only the live stream, but they're also able to see how many people looked at it later in the day or later on the weekend, to see people catching up on Saturday morning or what happened in the Health Human Services Committee?
Dave: Do you think that some of the things that have been adopted for this session are now going to be permanent changes?
Rep. Boschee: Absolutely. I think there was some apprehension from committee chairs and some of leaders going into session, but seeing how well it worked, it's working. And that's all kudos to our legislative it team. I mean, that's a team of just over four people who have been working their tails off, and have put in immense hours and their expertise and has created this system that's working well. Again, not only for us legislators to do our job safely, but for the public to interact with us.
Dave: Well, I have to ask you this question because the governor started talking about, state employees working from home. A lot of people have been working from home. There's still a good share of employees who are working from home. And he was thinking that that might become permanent too. And they might be able to reduce the state's footprint around the city of Bismarck, for example, where there's a lot of rental property. I have not seen a concrete proposal yet, have you?
Rep. Boschee: No. In my conversations with the folks in the human resources part of the state government, a lot of it they can do through policy. And so, I'm not hearing too many concerns anymore from legislators about whether people should or shouldn't be doing telework. For instance, I think we're all seeing the fruits of that and next thing it becomes a cost saving to taxpayers, potentially. I think our concerns are just making sure we're staying ahead of any potential issues going forward. What happens if 50% of our workforce is no longer located in North Dakota? Does that become a concern? But I think the best benefit is for North Dakotans. We have heard from division leaders throughout state government that no longer do they have to depend on people who live in Bismark to apply for the job. They can hire people in Grenora or Rugby or anywhere else in the state to do the work that before it had to be someone who had to be physically here in Bismarck.
Dave: That just reminds me, I have to bring this up because I don't think you were in the session but several sessions ago, there was a proposal to farm out some state agencies to other towns in the state. So, it's being done like, possibly be done electronically now.
Rep. Boschee: Yeah, and you think about it's, there was disparities too. In some communities had a human service center, other communities had a DOT building, others might have access to a department of commerce staff person. Well, now again, I think it kind of equalizes and allows regardless of where the employee is working, increasing access to North Dakota so that they can get their services wherever they are.
Dave: In the couple of minutes we have left, are there a couple of hidden issues that you are watching that we might not have discussed about yet or something that maybe we should be kind of aware, which is just coming up?
Rep. Boschee: Yeah. Well, I think, especially as we go into this next week, there's a lot of bills that have been introduced to adjust the electoral system or the election system in North Dakota. I think we're going up near 20 different bills now. Anything from impacting how long you have to live in the state to be considered a resident, to whether or not vote by mail will be allowed, to how much time you can vote when you're actually starting the voting process. I think a lot of these bills are solutions for a problem that doesn't exist in North Dakota. We went through this pandemic, we're able to adjust, thanks to the work of the county auditor's and the Secretary State's Office to make sure every North Dakota could have their voice be heard. And we saw increased participation, just like we've seen increased participation when counties went to vote by mail. So, I think North Dakota is like it. And any changes that we make are not gonna not gonna be seen well by our friends and our neighbors throughout the state.
Dave: Okay, we have one more question I want to get into just a little bit. There's a possibility of another COVID-19 relief bill, another type of cares act, will the legislature have more of a seat at the table this time?
Rep. Boschee: Dave, that's a great question. And as someone who has been advocating for much more legislative input, I'm pleased to say that the legislative leaders, we've all signed onto a bill that would actually make sure that we take over the control of that. Not only the funds that are coming, but any of the remaining funds from last year. If you recall, they were supposed to be expensed by December 31st, fortunately, a little too late, but fortunately, December 27th. With that new bill, there was an extension in there. And so, yeah, the legislature is gonna take its appropriate role in dealing with those appropriations.
Dave: All right, well. Representative Boschee, thank you very much for your time.
Rep. Boschee: Thanks, Dave, always a pleasure.
Dave: All right. Our guest on "Legislative Review", Representative Josh Boschee, he's the House Minority Leader, he's a Democrat from Fargo. And for Prairie Public and "Legislative Review", I'm Dave Thompson.