On this week's Legislative Review, House Majority Leader Chet Pollert (R-Carrington) talks bonding, the Governor's executive authority, water projects and meeting in 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. Thanks for joining us. We're on our digital platform and on our radio platform. I'm Dave Thompson. I'm joined today by the house majority leader, representative Chet Pollert from Carrington. Representative Pollert, thanks for being here.
Representative Chet Pollert: You bet, thank you, Dave. I appreciate the invitation.
Dave: Well, this has been an odd session because it's felt a little different with people remotely, with remote testimony, a lot of video things, a lot less clutter in the Capitol. I'm trying to figure out, from your perspective, what are you thinking, what are you seeing?
Rep. Pollert: Well, you know, Dave, I'm one of those that actually likes the clutter because I'm also one of those that believe that the best legislation is where we're facing each other eye to eye. You know, us legislators are here, some folks have the option of Microsoft Teaming which some of them do because they got concerns about COVID-19 and they have some underlying conditions. But for myself, I had to introduce a bill as chairman of legislative management and so I introduced the bill and I was asked my thoughts as far as how the audio-video is working. 'Cause we put a lot of money into it to to make this available so we can meet. And I said, "It's best if we're eye to eye. Yes, it gives us the option, like what you and I are doing today, Dave. I'm fine with that. But truthfully, Dave, I'd rather talk to you face to face.
Dave: I think we all kind of feel the same way. We like to see, once the pandemic is over, to get back to some semblance of normal and there will be more face-to-face, in-person conversations.
Rep. Pollert: You know, legislators have to have an interaction with citizens whether it's back home or if they come in here and testify and the same way with folks who represent business interests such as a GNDA or the chamber of commerce or Catholic charities or whoever. It's just best if they're there. So, you know, the halls aren't as busy, there's not as many. So it's got a different feeling. There's no doubt about that.
Dave: Do you think that the pace of work has been affected by this?
Rep. Pollert: I would say no, it has not. You know, we started the first week of this session with 45 minute floor sessions and the rest going into committee. 'Cause as an example, did judiciary committee has over 90 bills. You know, I think GVA was around 60 bills, somewhere around there. So these folks got a lot of work to, but at the same time, then we went to our floor sessions, next week we go to an hour and a half because you know, our goal is to hear all the bills, make sure they're fully vetted and then get to crossover. And doing that, that's fair to everybody, you know? So you'll see these floor session hours change too as well. So we're still going about our work. Some folks are Microsoft Teaming in, or they're Zooming in, some of the folks who give testimony, you know? And so we've got to watch it with COVID-19. We've got our mask rules and basically overall, I think people are doing pretty well, fairly well. Sometimes they'll forget, you know? The committees, they've got to meet, they've got to get these bills done because if we don't get done... You know, normally we're done somewhere around April 25th. And if we have to quarantine for 14 days, that's why these rules are in place, then all of a sudden we're into the middle of May, and if we have to do it twice, then we're till the end of May. And a lot of these folks are farmers or in the agriculture business and that won't work as well. But you know, we've only had a couple cases of people who had to go home and quarantine or at close contact, but we also have to be very cognizant of the fact, this place doesn't run without legislative council staff. You know, those folks are doing the bill drafting, if there's amendments to be done. So this is a process where all the gears and cogs have to work. And so if we would lose two or three legislative council staff people in these committees, that's quite a deal. You just don't bring somebody in off the street to start drafting legislation, you know? So yeah.
Dave: And you could see where the bottlenecks would happen is what you're saying.
Rep. Pollert: Oh, very much so. Yes. Yep.
Dave: Let me ask you about one of the big issues of the session. At least from some of us who've been watching, we thought that bonding is going to be a big issue. Are we correct? Do you think that's one of the top issues that you're gonna be dealing with?
Rep. Pollert: You know, as far as I'm concerned, Dave, and I've kind of been that way forever, the budget revenues and forecasts, those are on the top of the list but bonding is definitely in the top seven, you know? So you bet. If I'm correct, those bonding bills will get a hearing, I think next week. I don't remember what day, Tuesday or Wednesday or Monday or Tuesday or something like that. But that will be a big issue. Yes.
Dave: Is there a lot of resistance in your caucus to doing any kind of bonding?
Rep. Pollert: You know, our caucus is pretty big as you know, there's 80 Republicans. Some of those folks are very amenable to bonding. There's some of those folks who will do a pile of bonding and there's folks on the other end who don't want to bond at all. And then there's folks like me who are somewhere in the middle of saying, "Yes, we've got to do some of this stuff." You know, some of the concerns I have, as you know, Dave, revenues are down. I mean, oil prices are down, oil production is down. You know, the economy, because of COVID-19, nationally is way down and those are concerns. And so folks are looking to still continue the spending habits that we've done when money's been good. Now the general funds aren't there. So where are they looking at? They're looking at the Legacy Fund earnings. And as you and I have talked in the hallways off and on, with our masks, that we have to be careful because I'm one of those that believe the voters of North Dakota put the Legacy Fund, not for now, not for three or four or five years from now, but down the road a generation. And we've gotta be careful about that because this is oil revenues that have gone into this Legacy Fund. And as you know, with the current administration, there's big changes coming and we've gotta be ready for that. 'Cause with technology and that, maybe Black Electrons aren't the thing of the future 30, 40 years of from from now. So we've got to make sure these legacy funds are available. I think it's Norway that's got all those dollars in huge reserves. Our legacy fund with 7, 8 billion is a pittance which I'm not saying it's a pittance, but compared to Norway, a big difference, big difference. And that's how they fund a lot of their stuff with their government, so.
Dave: But our fund is somewhat similar in that it's a sovereign wealth fund and it's being invested in various places. And one thing that might be coming out of the session is investing up to, I think it's 20% of the fund in local projects, in North Dakota projects. Is that something that you're behind at this point?
Rep. Pollert: Well, here's what I'll say about that, Dave. It's generated a lot of interest. The bill that's gonna be introduced next week, you know, it's already in bill form. It's at 20%. During the interim, I know the insurance commissioner threw out the idea of 10%. Well that 10% went to 20% in North Dakota. And as you're probably aware too, you know, the state investment board, I think it's at 300 million. They have that option to go that high already without that bill. And I think they moved it up another 100 million up to 400 million, but yet folks haven't taken advantage of that yet. And so now there's an opportunity, or a bill out there, to go to 20%. So I'm not a sponsor on that bill. I have concerns about the prudent investment rule. And I know that the sponsors of the bill have put a lot of time and changed wording on it, trying to get to that point where it would suffice for that meaning. But there's still a lot of discovery that's got to happen on that, you know, so.
Dave: I have a feeling you're right. That issue coupled with, what else are you going to do with the proceeds from the Legacy Fund? Those seem to go hand in hand and bonding goes hand in hand with that. There are a lot of pretty, very high issues that are coming up very soon.
Rep. Pollert: Well, and Dave, we've got a bill in there that representative Schmidt and myself brought forward under 800 million. And the greatest share of that is water projects. You know, I'm one of those that believes we need to get the FM diversion in place, get it so that the dollars are there so they can finish that project because that amount of money, I think it was around 435 million, is what's still needed. You know, the state's share, I think we put 750 million in, yet you know that we made obligation saying we're gonna do 66 1/2 million a biennium. Well, they were looking for 120 million more for 170. And so part of that bill is to fill that commitment but get those dollars so they could be available for bonding so they can get that project going. I know it'll take a few years to get that done but if we can get that off the table, then we can start looking bigger into Red River water supply because that's going to bring water to a lot of rural communities depending on local matches. So FM is such a big project. It's kind of holding us back what we need to do on others. I myself, I'm kind of tired of doing a little bit here and there. Let's get FM diversion out of the way and start working on these other projects.
Dave: Yeah, and the other projects could be like Minot flood control too, as well as the River Valley water supply project. Maybe some improvements to Western area water systems is what I've been hearing a little bit about. And maybe some more with the Southwest pipeline project.
Rep. Pollert: And actually, Dave, part of that 798 million, it gets that money to the FM diversion for that access. It also helps us with WAS, it helps us get to the Minot... And I don't want to say the Minot. The Minot Area flood control. And I think if we can get that done right, it would complete phases one through three or one through four, and they need that to continue because they're shovel-ready. And so we need to work on that. So that bill would address, that bonding bill would address that. But besides money being available for bridges, some highway construction. I know it's not as much as what some people want but ya know, it's there, so.
Dave: One other issue I wanted to talk about just briefly is the governor's executive powers. There's been a flurry of bills that have been introduced to ratchet back on that, to have the legislature more involved, to have a virtual special session to deal with some of these issue if you have another pandemic. How do you feel things are going on that and which way do you see it moving?
Rep. Pollert: You know, those bills, Dave, are being heard now. There was one bill brought forward by representative Devlin that's in the Human Services Policy Committee and that's where it needs to be 'cause the state Health Council and all those, a lot of those dealt with health issues just because of COVID-19. I know there's a bill in the GVA house, GVA committee, and I think Senator Murdall has a bill in the Senate. So there's a number of those out there. You know, some of them say, "Okay, the executive order can be in place for 60 days," and then the governor would have to get access, not access, I'm sorry, but authorization, to go past 60 days. And we would be involved every 30 days to be called in, you know, and there are bills out there with some appropriations members saying that the governor would have the discretion up to like $100 million. Anything over that, we would have to be able to come in in special session and look at those. So there's a number of those bills that are coming forward because of the last year's dealing with COVID-19 with the Cares Act, 'cause as you know as well too, Dave, there's a, I'll say, Cares Act 2, and there looks like in another three to four weeks or five weeks there'll be basically like a Cares Act 3 with a new administration in there. So it's gonna take some heavy lifting for us to get those things allocated out and try and help those branches of industry that have taken a hit whether it's hotels, restaurants, you know, or whether it's our local public health units, because they have to working through these vaccines, or whether it's our K through 12 system, you know, because everybody's been impacted by that. But with the executive orders, a lot of folks had to shut down for a while. Now, we have obligations there, I feel, to try and help those systems through that. And truthfully, during the interim, of course the emergency commission met and budget section met, myself and Senator Wardner had, I can't count the number of phone calls and conference calls we had with Governor Burgum, Lieutenant Governor Sanford and all his staff and saying, "Okay, where can this go?" There were legislators in both the House and the Senate, as an example, that spent a lot of time with the Bank of North Dakota, trying to figure out, you know, loans and grants, where it should go how it should be implemented for them during this time. So there was a lot of work done but yet there was a feeling of legislators that more should be involved when we're talking a billion dollars. Instead of six of us on the emergency commission and the 54 in budget section, that all the 141 legislators should have more of a voice. And so this is what that's attempting to do.
Dave: You said that there might be a COVID, or a Cares Act 3, we want to call it that, potentially coming our way. How is that going to impact decisions you're gonna be making this session? I know it's too early to say what the amount might be, but it might have an impact on what you can or cannot do.
Rep. Pollert: Well, Dave, we don't know what those dollars are going to be. We hear a lot of rumors. And yet at the same time, both the House and Senate appropriations committees are meeting, going through all the budgets, trying to figure out where they're at. Yet, I don't say we're not on hold because those committees are meeting and talking, yet we know there's gonna be some dollars going somewhere to some of this stuff. So we've got to be ready for that as all. So I have a feeling what'll happen, somewhere towards the end of February, we might hear, but we will probably, in order to get the crossover, have to get some budgets done knowing full well when they get to the other chamber, that those numbers could change pretty drastically. But we also understand-
Dave: That'll make the conference committees work.
Rep. Pollert: It will, but we also have to remember these dollars aren't gonna... Because I have concerns with all the money that the federal government is throwing out here too. And we've got to look at those as one-time funding. We can't put them as an ongoing expense for those agencies or for those appropriations 'cause those dollars aren't gonna be there in the future so we've got to make sure we're spending that money wisely because they aren't gonna allow us to throw it into the safe in our reserve somewhere. It's gonna be expanded but we also know hotels are at the best. I know where I'm staying at here during... They're lucky if they're 10, 15% occupied, maybe 20%. You know, normally through the winter time with basketball tournaments and wrestling, those folks are 75 to 100% full and that's just not happening. So we've got to continue to address that.
Dave: I'm going to throw a little curve ball at you just because what we've been talking about a little bit on the air for a couple of days. Representative Ben Koppelman has that bill to do a $40 million addition to the legislative wing. And I assume you've kind of looked at it. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Rep. Pollert: Here's what I'll say because, Dave, I've been working so much on the bonding bill, one thing we have to... And then it'll sound like I'm changing subjects, but this is one of the most core things that we've got to come out with is how do we continue Coal Creek Station? How do we continue because I'm one of those who firmly believes that the baseline for electricity is gonna be coal. And with the new administration, but this started before then too, we're going to have to have low carbon with what we're working for for energy. And we've got about four or five... Oh, I better not. Maybe seven or eight major bills that we're gonna have to pass and have in place so we get prepared for two, three, four, five years down the road to get ready for carbon capture, carbon sequestration. So we gotta have research funds in place. We're trying to help the coal industry 'cause they're having a tough time now. I think Coal Creek is very important for us to keep that going. So I've been spending most of my time with Senator Wardner talking about those issues more than the $40 million addition at the Capitol. So that's not high on my priority list, Dave, I just gotta be honest with you right now. And I'll get a chance to look at that later, but you know, with what we're going through with COVID-19, and a lot of folks we're finding out can work from home, some of that creates some challenges. I know the ag department needs to be in-person working. You know, those do a lot of on-scene inspections whether it's in the ag industry or whether it's at your gas stations or anything like that, you know? Or the PSE is the same way. So in order to check metering devices, scales, you know, inspections, those folks gotta be able to work on hand but we also found out a lot of folks can work from home. So guess what? We got a lot of empty space in the Capitol. And so we've used those for offices because there's a lot of legislators here that have underlying conditions. And aren't comfortable being around with a lot of folks right now. I know the positivity cases are dropping but we have to be careful about the con... So we've got them offices but there's a lot of office space up here so we have to take a look at that as well as look at Representative Koppelman's bill dealing with additions. So all that's changed.
Dave: I'm also glad you brought up Coal Creek because there's been rumors that there might be a potential buyer for the plant. I dunno how closely you've been involved in the negotiations. Is there a potential buyer or two that you know of?
Rep. Pollert: You know, right now, Dave, what I'll say, there are a lot of ongoing discussions going on with a lot of folks. I'm fairly optimistic, really optimistic that there will be something done but we also have to realize also, as an example, Great River Energy has Coal Creek right now. You know, they got an ethanol plant and Great River Energy has been a good partner for the state of North Dakota. They're part of the Dakota AG ethanol plant at Spirit Wood. They've got the transmission plant at Spirit Wood. There's talk of someone hopefully gonna build a soybean plant. If we can get those things done, then that helps us bring a diesel manufacturing facility out to Dickinson and in line with one of the oil companies. I mean, so Great River Energy's been a good partner, but Coal Creek has been a challenge for 'em. So they're aggressively looking at a partner. So those negotiations have to happen between those folks. And I know there's talks going on. And I know Lieutenant Governor Sanford's been involved in that pretty heavily. Senator Warner and myself have been, you know, we got legislation out there. It's kind of created a stir but we'll work through that. That's the way this legislative process as you know, Dave, comes out. It's really ugly like sausage being made and we're hoping got a good product that's gonna keep Coal Creek Station open. We're hoping we keep them 6 or 800 employees working. We're hoping coal, because coal, I firmly believe, is a baseline part of power. But I also realize this whole country is changing with renewables. Those have to be part of that process. And that's important. There's a lot of folks that say, "No, that's not true." I can't speak for Senator Wardner, but I will say Senator Ward and I both both agree that we've got to keep that going. So those discussions gotta be ongoing for both green and black electrons 'cause that's what's good for the state.
Dave: Yeah, and we probably will see something soon because the plant is supposed to shut down in 2022. But you hear signs that there might be ways now with the state maybe investing something, some research dollars into carbon capture, carbon sequestration, using the carbon for enhanced oil recovery or just storing carbon underground. There are opportunities out here.
Rep. Pollert: Dave, there are a lot of opportunities. And so it's all a piece of a big pie that we have to, when we leave here, and I'm hoping we don't have to shut down for a quarantine, so I'm optimistic saying, when we leave here the latter part of April, we better have a plan in place that has these jobs going there. So that's a challenge for us, but today, Dave, I'm feeling fairly confident about that. But we've got a lot of hurdles to go through. There's a lot of folks that got some angst about everything but that's the way this legislative process goes. I mean, there gets to be some heated debates going on. So, but we have to work through that.
Dave: But of course, the debates heated that are on the issues are really illustrative at times and very fun for us to listen to.
Rep. Pollert: Well, if you're involved in the middle of that thing, Dave, and you're one of those that's in that eye-to-eye contact and debating, sometimes that gets tough because you're dealing with people here, legislators get to be friends, but boy, I tell you what though, you can talk about water fights, you can talk about energy fights right now, and I'm talking mentally, you know, and verbally, but that puts a strain on some of these relationships. It really does.
Dave: Well, Representative Pollert, thank you for the time.
Rep. Pollert: You bet, Dave, I've appreciated this. You know, Dave, I'm fine. It's always good to talk with you.
Dave: We love talking to you too. Thank you so much. This has been Legislative Review on Prairie Public on our radio and digital platforms. I'm Dave Thompson. Thanks for joining us.