Sen. Nicole Poolman (R-Bismarck) talks about her work on Senate Appropriations, including Career and Technical Education, Corrections and Information Technology.
Watch a video of the conversation on our YouTube channel.
Dave Thompson: This is "Legislative Review" on Prairie Public's radio and digital platforms. I'm Dave Thompson. Thanks for joining us. Our guest today, Republican Senator Nicole Poolman of Bismarck. Senator, thank you for being here.
Senator Nicole Poolman: Thank you for having me. It's always so nice to talk to you.
Dave: It's good to talk to you, too. We're in a very odd session as I've been mentioning to everybody. It's COVID protocols. People are sometimes working remotely. The halls seem to be a lot emptier. I'm just kind of curious from your perspective, what kind of vibe are you getting from this session?
Sen. Poolman: Well, the vibe is definitely one of disconnection. I definitely feel disconnected and in a way that is not typical. As you have said, usually the halls, the balconies, the chambers are full all the time. And so it's very quiet and feels disconnected. And those masks also add to that feeling of disconnection. We don't see smiles and facial expressions. And so it does make communication a little bit more challenging. So I would say it has a very disconnected vibe to it, but we're still doing the work, so that's good.
Dave: Absolutely. Absolutely. And do you think that some of this will carry over into next sessions and things like that, maybe some of the technology things?
Sen. Poolman: Absolutely. One of the great things that has happened is that all of our committee meetings are now online all the time. And so no matter what your interests, no matter what your issue, you can watch from your living room. The other even more important piece is that you can testify from your living room. And so I think that's going to be something that will follow us from here on out. The idea that in a North Dakota winter, someone from Grand Forks or Fargo does not have to drive all the way to Bismarck to testify is going to be a really great thing.
Dave: That really hasn't been too much of an issue until about a week ago. But now with the very cold temperatures, it is an issue. I understand that.
Sen. Poolman: Right, right.
Dave: Let me just talk to you about you're on Appropriations.
Sen. Poolman: Yes.
Dave: What areas of the appropriations bills are you more in charge of? Maybe a subcommittee chair?
Sen. Poolman: Right, so I am subcommittee chair of the Career and Technical Education budget this half of our cycle. And so that's something we just passed out, a lot of interest relating to career and technical education. If you'll remember, the governor recommended that we do some bonding to build career and technical education centers across the state. There are certainly a lot of discussions surrounding that. And many more schools are offering career and technical education courses. So the version of the budget that we are hoping to pass out of the Senate tomorrow does have a $2.5 million increase in it because we are providing $1.5 million in direct reimbursements to schools who already have those programs and another million dollars is expected to be needed for the next biennium for programs that are just coming online, just not in existence yet. So those are important increases I think. I'm hopeful that the Senate will approve and, of course, that it heads over to the House for their approval.
Dave: So always a step in the process, yes. But-
Sen. Poolman: Absolutely. And career and technical education is such an essential, and I think increasingly important part of public education. So I do believe that we will see a lot of support for those increases.
Dave: And not to put too fine a point on it, Bismarck was kind of a leader with its CTE Center, that was a guide for Bismarck Schools and Bismarck State College. There are proposals for Fargo, Minot, Dickinson, Williston. There are proposals to have centers all over the state. Do you think that with the help of the legislature his time, they're gonna make a lot of progress in that?
Sen. Poolman: I think we will make progress. It's just going to be a matter of how we do that. I think that there are some out there who want to see us give $15 million grants to build these buildings. I think there are others who would say let's give the top 10 size districts $5 million a piece to ensure that they can provide career and technical education to their region. And there are some people who don't want to see us using state money to build any sort of K-12 building. So there are different versions of what people view career and technical education to be and what it should be going forward, and we are just going to have to hash that out. I think that will be hashed out in a bonding bill.
Dave: Since you brought up the whole subject of education, too, I wanted to ask you about K-12. The bill is not in the Senate. The bills in the House I believe, HB-
Sen. Poolman: It is. I haven't seen it yet. Correct.
Dave: And the governor proposed basically flat funding for two years. and, you know, with enrollments, you don't know if flat funding is gonna be actually a cut or what's going to happen on that. You know, you did time, you were a teacher in the district, right?
Sen. Poolman: Mm-hmm. I am.
Dave: What was your perspective in terms of flat funding for K-12 for two years?
Sen. Poolman: Well, flat funding for K-12 if enrollments remain the same, as you know, teacher-signed contracts, and they move up the ladder, regardless of how much funding the state is going to give us. Those local school districts have contracted with teachers to have their salaries increase with every year that they teach. So we know that those salary numbers will increase. And so flat funding usually results in a reduction somewhere else. And so I am hoping that we can find some increases for K-12 education. There are a few out there talking about the fact that enrollments may be down. There are others who mentioned that COVID dollars certainly played a big part in funding, not only this past year, but that we have expectations for this upcoming COVID relief package, that that will also provide some funds to local school districts. So even if it is flat funding, we're not quite sure if that will look completely flat from a district's perspective.
Dave: Since you brought up COVID funding and the potential for another amount of money coming into North Dakota, we don't know what it is just yet, but you're in the middle of a legislative session. This thing is pending. What happens, from your perspective, if all of a sudden North gets a pot maybe of 2 or $3 billion for COVID funding? How does that affect your job as a budget writer?
Sen. Poolman: Well, I can tell you, it is on the minds of appropriators, the upcoming COVID relief bill. And the preliminary version shows that we would get just over $1 billion. And so that would be about 776 million to the state and the rest to cities and counties. So I can tell you that the $776 million, even though it's preliminary, it's just beginning, their discussions out in Washington, DC, it's on the minds of those of us who are making tough decisions about budgets, knowing that that money could come in, not knowing exactly when it will come in. But in recent discussions, we have learned that a lot of the funding is a little bit more flexible, that it certainly can be used for anything to address the impact of the emergency. And recently we learned that that language does include the concept of possibly shoring up a pension. And so that's also part of the discussion, that maybe some of our pension woes with the PERS retirement plan could be alleviated with some of that one-time spending.
Dave: I'm glad you brought that up because that leads me into another discussion. As we're recording this on a Thursday, there was a big discussion about the pay plan for state employees and Senator Mathern brought up an amendment that would have paid some money to try to pay down that unfunded liability of PERS. But this is all very fluid it looks like because we're only getting close to the halfway part of the session. There's another whole part of the session coming up. You don't know when COVID money is coming in. So there are some unknowns I would guess you'd probably say.
Sen. Poolman: Absolutely. There's a lot of uncertainty right now. We always like to wait until the March forecast comes out, right, our best guess as to how much revenue we will have, And so that's one reason why we pause and wait and proceed with caution. So the Senate has approved 2 and 2% increases for state employees with an $80 minimum and a $300 maximum. Right now we have waited on the 1 and 1% increases in the retirement contributions. And we know that down the road at some point, we are going to have to address this, and that it's cheaper to address it sooner rather than later. So I would anticipate that we will try to find a way, whether it is through a cash infusion into the plan or it is those increases that we will see some attempt to shore up that $1.4 billion unfunded liability that we have right now.
Dave: And the COVID money, if and when it comes, could help.
Sen. Poolman: It could. And again, it's preliminary numbers, and it's preliminary language. So we don't know if that will still be an allowable expense or investment for states to utilize that money for, but it's definitely a discussion in the hallways that that could be a good one-time use for that. Because we know that as this goes on, that it really does start to impact, not just our unfunded liability down the road, right? We know that we're paying out everything we need to be paying to people who are retiring today and tomorrow and next year and the year after that. It's quite a bit down the road that that becomes a problem. But having that unfunded liability on the books can start to be a problem for our bond rating, both for the State of North Dakota and for our local political subdivisions that are also part of that program. So we definitely need to address it. And again, we're just at a time in the session where we're proceeding with caution.
Dave: And you can understand why, and I, as an observer,
Sen. Poolman: Yes.
Dave: I completely understand why because things are still very fluid until that March forecast. And now with the added chance of COVID money on top of that, there's a lot more uncertainty this time perhaps.
Sen. Poolman: Absolutely. There's always uncertainty. And I would add to that uncertainty, some of the policies coming out of the Biden administration that also provide a level of angst or uncertainty for a state that is incredibly dependent upon our energy industry. And what will that mean for us down the road if those continue to be restricted.
Dave: I'd like to talk to you about that in a little bit, but I just wanted to, you talked about the bond rating, and of course, bonding is one of the top issues that's really being considered here. And just to, again, recap it, the governor proposed $1.25 billion. Senator Mathern has a $2 billion bill. Republicans had a billion, but now down to $800 million. I know you haven't really looked at the bonding bills too much just yet, but what's your opinion about the bills that are out there?
Sen. Poolman: Well, I think that my opinion lies a little bit more in the groups of legislators and how they feel about bonding. Regardless of what that bill looks like in the end, I think we've got three groups of legislators. I think you have one group that doesn't wanna bond. They don't like the idea of bonding. It makes them nervous. They don't like it. And it doesn't really matter what that bill looks like. They're probably going to vote no. And then you have a group I would say in the middle who are interested in bonding, but they wanna keep it to essential infrastructure, right? We talk about the Fargo Diversion. We talk about roads and bridges, that type of construction, essential infrastructure. They're interested in bonding for that. And then you have a third group of legislators who are interested in putting quite a few projects, capital projects. Senator Mathern last week, I think referred to it as the Christmas tree version of a bonding bill with lots of ornaments to attract votes from all different parts of the state. And so I think in the long run, it's just going to have to be those three groups of people coming to a consensus about what that bill should look like. So I don't get too caught up in what they look like now, because as you know, it's the first period of the hockey game of the legislative session. And so it's so early that I wouldn't wanna speculate as to what that will look like by the end, but someone's going to have to find a way to bring all three of those groups together and come to consensus on what it should look on day 80.
Dave: As a UND alum, I was so glad you got the Fighting Hawk reference in there about the hockey game, which you have a vested interest in.
Sen. Poolman: We do. We do. We love the University of North Dakota. We love Fighting Hawks hockey.
Dave: And a certain person named Poolman who played for Fighting Hawks.
Sen. Poolman: Yes, actually two of them, they both played and now have both moved on to professional sports, but boy, we really did enjoy watching them while they were there. And we continue to love to watch them. Huge fans, huge fans of UND.
Dave: Absolutely. Absolutely. Well, about the bonding bill, you're correct about the $800 million, especially it's talking about getting water projects. Talking to House Majority Leader Pollert, he said that, you know, Diversion has to get off the books 'cause that's a huge commitment to the state's $430 million or plus, and then you can move on to some other things like the River Valley Water Supply Project. You can help out Minot with the Mouse River Water Project, but there are other, some infrastructure needs that some people are talking about as well. You mentioned roads and bridges. Also there there's some talk about maybe university buildings again, that type of thing.
Sen. Poolman: Correct. Right. And so, like I said, it's just a matter of building enough consensus. Certainly the Fargo Diversion is very much like our conversation we just had about the pension. It's something we know we have to address at some point. And so why not do that now at a time when we know that money should be a little bit cheaper and construction certainly only gets more expensive as time goes on. So we know that that's the state's obligation to complete that project. And so it would be a great relief to us if we could get that off of our plate.
Dave: You know, talking about that and buildings at some of the college campuses, I wanted to get your opinion about, since we talked about UND just a little bit, and I don't mean to throw this as a curve ball at you, but this whole idea that UND is kind of shrinking its footprint to a kind of a core area where they're going to be doing most of the instruction in a core area, and they're replacing the student union up there and things like that, what do you think about how colleges and universities are approaching building an unfunded maintenance liability?
Sen. Poolman: Correct. That is one thing that higher education is generally having to reinvent itself. And this idea of bricks and mortar to the extent that we have had in the past is something that colleges and universities have to rethink. And I think the University of North Dakota is doing that really well. Let's focus on a core group of buildings that feel centralized, that looked beautiful on campus and make sure that we are getting rid of the buildings that, as you say, cost so much money in deferred maintenance. And that's something that I think all campuses are trying to do, not just the University of North Dakota, really prioritizing space, evaluating what we really need to educate students in a way that is still providing them with that on-campus experience. Because I really do believe that that is one of the most important pieces of student experience in college is living on campus, going to class. Certainly we have seen in this online environment students struggling with that. So we know that not every student can learn online for everything, but some of it can be delivered online, and some students do prefer that. So by reducing that footprint in bricks and mortar, we can certainly see better quality buildings and better quality experience with what we have and getting some of that deferred maintenance off the books is good for everybody.
Dave: One of the other side issues that I've been kind of watching a little bit, and I know there's a lot of interest in it is what to do with the proceeds of the Legacy Fund. There's been a proposal to even, shall we say, invest up to 20% of the Legacy Fund in North Dakota projects. How do you feel about that bill?
Sen. Poolman: I'm excited about that bill. I like the idea that we would invest some of those dollars back into our own communities and industries that are trying to take off. I just think it's a great idea. I am hopeful that we see that pass through both chambers. I know that Insurance Commissioner Jon Godfried has worked tirelessly to make this point to the community and to the legislators that this is really something that North Dakotans would support. I think that if we talked to taxpayers and said, you know, "We're investing it in all of these other places. Would you like to see us take a portion of that and invest it in our own state and in our own communities?", I think a majority of taxpayers would say, "Yes. That's a great idea." So I am hopeful about that bill.
Dave: And talking to some of the entrepreneurs, one of the issues they have in, and that's not just for North Dakota, but North Dakota especially, for North Dakota entrepreneurs is trying to find capital. And so this is a way
Sen. Poolman: Yes.
Dave: to provide some capital. So you're saying this is a good deal for us.
Sen. Poolman: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Dave: There is also some discussion, and I heard this in, I just happened to go by Senate Appropriations one day and happened to hear some people in the Legislative Council present that there seems to be a little bit of a tug and pull about IT. Are you sensing that as well?
Sen. Poolman: It's pretty hard not to sense it. I think that they were pretty specific in their frustrations with IT. I think that Legislative Council is unique in that we really are a separate branch of government. It makes sense under the executive branch to be bringing all of ITD together, working under one umbrella. But when you're a separate branch of government, that gets sticky, and it's difficult for them to get the help they need quite as quickly as they need. And so you'll see in our budget requests for Legislative Council, that we are requesting that that be removed, that we have some people who are sticking with the Legislative Council agency rather than coming from ITD.
Dave: So is it going to be a new platform or a new system? How is that going to roll out?
Sen. Poolman: I'm not exactly sure. I'm not the technical person to be able to answer that portion of the question, but I think it was it was really not so much about platform, but it was about service. And I think service really became the issue for Legislative Council, and they just want their own people to be able to service their own system and have access to those people when they need it. And that seemed to me to rise to the top of that discussion.
Dave: And there is some sense to it because you talked about branches of government, three separate coequal branches of government. You've got the courts, you've got the executive, you've got the legislative. So the legislature is basically saying, Hey, we're a separate branch of government. Maybe we should do this ourselves. And that, you know, it does make some sense.
Sen. Poolman: Great. And it does make sense for the executive agency to really want all of the agencies that fall under the executive branch to be under one roof as well. That makes sense as well. I recognize there are some agencies where it's not a great fit, and we have left those out, but it does make sense in terms of consumer experience as well for there to be one platform, one place where people can go to find what they need out of the executive branch.
Dave: I have to ask this because somebody told me that you might be involved, heavily involved in the corrections budget, perhaps as a subcommittee chair or something like that.
Sen. Poolman: I am on the subcommittee. I'm not sharing it, but I am on a subcommittee for the Department of Corrections, a lot of changes happening, both technically and philosophically in Corrections. And this has been a long journey for them. And now we're starting to see some of those philosophical shifts change to funding shifts to choices in the way incarceration works and how we choose to spend funds.
Dave: I know, without maybe getting too far in the weeds, what do you think are going to be the biggest manifestations we'll notice in changes in Corrections?
Sen. Poolman: Well, of course, that big philosophical issue is that we are changing our idea of what it takes to be incarcerated, right? That we are going to invest money upstream in the types of programs covering addiction and behavioral health and trying to invest there rather than paying on the backend when somebody finally has to be incarcerated. So that philosophy is really starting to come into play in how we spend money. So we are investing in behavioral health, and they are making shifts in terms of the way they house, especially women. That's the issue that we're dealing with this session is moving many of the women who are out in the Dickinson area into YCC, right? And again, we are able to move them to YCC because there are fewer youth going to YCC because of that same philosophy that we are trying to do everything we can to ensure that they are not put into the system in the first place. And so some of this movement that you're seeing is the product of that change in philosophy.
Dave: Now, this shows where things are really intertwined, because Corrections is not an island, because Behavioral Health, Human Services, this is all connected. So this leads me to this next question. One of the things that was proposed is that there was going to be a new state hospital in Jamestown. And of course, you've got the James River Correctional Center there. Is there going to be a new state hospital in Jamestown? I think it's off the table temporarily, but maybe back on the table soon.
Sen. Poolman: Right, I think it's off the table right now. I think they're going to focus on the shifting of the women prisoners right now. And that's going to be the focus this biennium. I do have the sense that the state hospital is on the docket maybe in the next biennium, but in the future. But I do think it's off the table right now.
Dave: Okay. You did mention the Southwest Center in New England. That facility is going away, correct?
Sen. Poolman: It's not going away.
Dave: They're not going, okay.
Sen. Poolman: They are, the DWCRC is the facility housing the women, and they are going to be shifting some of the women, but not all. And so that's really one of our discussion points with the correction budget is that there needs to be some overlap in the funding. Even though we are shifting some of the women away from that facility, they really can't reduce their costs very much. You know, they're already at a pretty slim, slim... What's the word I'm looking for? They're already running a very, they're already running a budget that is-
Dave: Efficient? They're efficiently tight, yeah.
Sen. Poolman: Tight, tight. Efficient, thank you. They're already running a pretty tight ship up there. And so now we are seeing that they need those funds, and we are also going to be providing some funding for YCC, some of the shifts they need to make in the cottages there to make them appropriate for the women who will be moved there. So it's a confusing budget I will tell you right now, just because we are trying to get our arms around whether or not that's the right move, and how much should it really cost? Is this going to be more expensive for a little while and save us money in the long run? Or is this a model that we want to deliver because it's better? And is that going to cost more in the long run? I think that's probably the big question that we have right now.
Dave: Well, Senator thank you very much for taking the time. We've run out of time, and we hope to do this again soon.
Sen. Poolman: Well, thank you for having me!
Dave: Our guest on "Legislative Review", State Senator Nicole Poolman of Bismarck, She's a Republican, and she's on the Senate Appropriations Committee. For Prairie Public, I'm Dave Thompson.