Rep. Zachary Ista (D-Grand Forks) is serving his first term in the Legislature. We'll hear from him about his expectations coming into the session, as well as some of the issues he's watching.
Watch a video of the conversation on our YouTube channel.
Dave Thompson: This is Legislative Review from Prairie Public. We're on our radio services and on our digital platforms with video. Our guest today is Representative Zac Ista from Grand Forks. He's a freshman Democrat, and we wanted to get your perspective on some things. So Representative Ista, thank you for being here.
Representative Zac Ista: Well, thanks so much for having me, Dave. It's a rite of passage for lawmakers. I feel pretty lucky to achieve it before crossover my very first session.
Dave: Well, we wanted to get you on to talk to you about how things are going. First off, you're coming into a session. It's not a normal session because there are a lot of new COVID protocols for a legislature. Was it what you expected?
Rep. Ista: Yes and no. I've been told from some veteran lawmakers that I have a unique advantage as compared to other freshmen classes in that this session, everybody is learning a whole bunch of new things in terms of technology, in terms of our COVID safety protocols. So what is already a steep learning curve has been maybe softened just a little bit, because even our most experienced members are having to learn some new things. So my caucus leaders, my mentors here in the legislature, folks on both sides of the aisle have been very generous with their time. So I think I came in pretty well prepared on what to expect on a day to day level. But certainly, the fast pace, the depth of knowledge that you have to acquire in a quick amount of time, that's going to be a challenge for anybody. But I'm doing my best to keep up and it's really been rewarding so far.
Dave: Not only that you're dealing with a number of bills. The legislature in North Dakota goes through an incredible amount of bills in basically an 80 day session. I'm just curious as to how are you keeping up with things?
Rep. Ista: That's a really great question. I think we have something around 500, a little more than that on the House side. And we just came off of floor session today where we got through about 25 bills in three hours. So keeping up with each one of those 500 bills certainly can be a challenge. What works well for me is certainly those bills that come through my committee I have a little bit of specialized knowledge on. I got to hear the testimony and inform assessments on those bills on the front end. But those bills that did come through my committee, you know, I certainly look to what the committee recommendation was, I asked members of my caucus who sat on that committee, their thoughts on the bill, and through the technology we have available to us, it's certainly easy for me to pull the written testimony and even go back and look in the videos if it's an issue that's a little bit of a closer call. So I've gotten in the practice of every night taking the calendar of bills I know is that for the next day and just making a couple of quick notes on those bills that I know what my position is, whether it's affirmative or negative, and those where I really want to hear what the floor debate is.
Dave: Now you are a prosecutor in Grand Forks, correct?
Rep. Ista: That's right.
Dave: How does this relate to your job as a prosecutor? Have you noticed any similarities? I'm just curious.
Rep. Ista: Sure. You know, I do think there are a lot of similarities, and it's a good question right on the heels of asking about the bill volume because as a prosecutor, both at the County level now, and previously I was with the federal government, one thing we have to do is balance a whole lot of files on our desk at any one time. You know, there've been times in my career where I've had over 100 files on my desk. So you have to be prepared with at least a little bit of knowledge in every one of those files because you never know which issue that maybe you thought was on the back burner is going to bubble over and come to the forefront in any given day. So I think that experience in balancing a busy workload has been useful to cross over from being a prosecutor to being a legislator, and also the ability to have to formulate arguments on your feet. You know, when I make presentations to a judge, to a court, it's not unlike presenting a bill to a committee or asking questions as a committee member of any witness. So those are very transferable skills. And this week we had a lot of criminal justice-themed bills that came before the House. I was able to rely on some of that previous subject matter knowledge I had in that arena as well.
Dave: Now, of course, you know, talk to witnesses, testimony, not necessarily cross examination, but you get a chance to ask questions when you're in a committee, so there is a similarity that I see there too.
Rep. Ista: Yeah, absolutely. I think I got some good advice early on that a cross-examination style isn't always the most effective way to make a point. And particularly if we have a citizen witnesses that come before the committee, they don't expect, nor should they be grilled with tough questions. But when a fellow lawmaker comes before us or a professional lobbyist, sometimes those questions can get a little more pointed. So I get to use those skills. I've honed in the courtroom every once in a while.
Dave: So let me ask you about the issues that you're following at this point. What do you think are the big issues in the session that you want to see, you know, come to fruition or something done with?
Rep. Ista: Well, sure, I mean the big issue on everyone's mind this session, I'm sure, every session is the budget. We've been looking uniquely this year whether it is a logical time to do bonding in the state of North Dakota. So those are the big ticket bills. I know the lawmakers you've had on this year have all offered up their thoughts on that. But it's my understanding and I keep hearing that on the budget nothing's final until it's final. So we're only really at the start of that process right now. But in terms of other subject matter, issues that have come up, certainly, we've had to deal with the public health issue of COVID and the related economic issues caused by COVID. I mentioned previously, this week we had a lot of bills dealing with criminal justice. We've had some voting bills. Some issues I'm particularly passionate about is making sure we're taking care of our working families here in North Dakota. So we're seeing a lot of those bills come through, and once we hit that crossover point next week we'll see what we have before us that comes from our friends in the Senate.
Dave: Well, there are bills, now there was a constitutional amendment that was heard about legalizing recreational marijuana, and before that, there was a bill that talked about decriminalization. Where do you come down on that?
Rep. Ista: Yeah, those are tough issues, Dave, and as a criminal prosecutor, I certainly hear many different perspectives from my friends in law enforcement, my friends in prosecution, my friends in the criminal defense bar. And I generally fall on the side of I support legalizing recreational marijuana. I think there's a couple of reasons why. One is that's where popular opinion is taking us. I mean, we saw just to the south of us, in South Dakota, their ballot measure passed with significant support. Now I understand the courts have rolled that back already, but I think we can see that the tide of public opinion is shifting that way. And this isn't about just sticking your finger in the wind and seeing which way popular sentiment is going. It's about respecting what the voters want. And I think here in North Dakota, we should anticipate that, if and when a ballot measure comes, it's likely to be popular and it might be very likely to succeed. So do we trust ourselves as lawmakers to write better policy that takes account of all those nuanced issues like how to legalize it, how to make sure we're not creating dangerous situations of people that get behind the wheel. We're protecting our juveniles from marijuana. We're empowering our law enforcement to still keep our streets safe versus a constitution or ballot measure that comes where maybe people didn't fully flesh out those issues? So I think as legislators we want to assert our prerogative there and say, even if we're not personally supportive of recreational marijuana use, let's go ahead and write the law in a responsible way to make sure we address all those nuanced issues.
Dave: So the train probably has left the station on that issue with the public.
Rep. Ista: I think the train is certainly pulling out of the station at this point. People may still be chasing after it asking it to stop, and it's been going in fits and starts. You know, the court action in South Dakota being one. It's still alive issue at the federal level. And at this point, I think it's a toss up as to whether it passes that here in the House, the 1420 provision that would create a recreational marijuana plan for the state. It was a very divided committee vote on that. So it to be seen how many of us are onboard that moving train, but whether it's this session, a ballot measure the next election, or next session, I do think we are well on our way to seeing marijuana legalized at the recreational level in North Dakota and probably nationwide sooner rather than later.
Dave: I'd like to go back to the bonding issue since it seems to be one of those overreaching issues in a legislative session, as is spending, and I'll get to something on that on spending. But about bonding, is this something that you can get behind?
Rep. Ista: Yes, absolutely. You know, everybody in the legislative assembly is supportive of fiscal responsibility and we all want to make sure we're being good stewards of our state resources and our state taxpayer dollars. But you know full well, the Democrats, especially in the Senate, had a fulsome bonding package. I understand it was just voted down on the floor right before we came on today and I'm disappointed by that because I think bonding gives the state a chance to invest in some of those immediate needs, infrastructure being the biggest, most popular, the one that has the most consensus here in the legislature. But the democratic MPL package also invested in education, in lifelong learning, in schools, in job training and research. Those are important issues to myself, to my community in Grand Forks. And to those that are uncomfortable with bonding at a theoretical level, I understand. Like I said, we all want to be good fiscal stewards here in North Dakota. But I think our state has to take an approach like I did. I just purchased my house, got a mortgage on my house just last year. But as I watched interest rates go down and down and down, I thought it was worth a call to the bank to see if there could be cost savings to me through refinancing, and sure enough, there was. So I didn't have just a huge desire to take out that a new mortgage all, you know, just on the heels of the first one, but it would have been irresponsible for me not to consider those options. So here, as the state of North Dakota, while we want to be good, responsible fiscal stewards, let's also not be irresponsible and not consider all of our options with these historically low interest rates. And we know the costs are just going to rise with all the things that we have pressing needs for, especially roads and bridges and those infrastructure projects. So it's a live issue still and I know it's going to come to the House floor before crossover. It's sort of keeps getting pared back further and further but I'm hopeful that before we adjourn in April, we're going to come to an agreement on some sort of package and bond.
Dave: Is there anything specific you'd like to see in a bonding bill?
Rep. Ista: Well, I do think those infrastructure needs are a good place to start. But what I liked about the as well is we did look at some of those education components, and not just schools and schools' construction needs but those job training programs too, so that we're making sure not only are we investing in K-12, but we're investing in job training if somebody wants switch careers, or in technical and career education at the high school level. I think those are really important investments for the state that makes sure that we stay on a sustainable path to keep our economy growing and make this a place where working families want to live, grow, and raise their own family.
Dave: Is there anything you see that Grand Forks needs that could be taken care of in a bonding bill?
Rep. Ista: Sure, I mean, Grand Forks will benefit from a whole lot of those priorities. You know, we certainly have our own infrastructure needs in Grand Forks. We have a few road projects that have been identified. It's not top of our priority list, but eventually we'll have a new bridge to construct across the river and the south side of town. And the more we can take pressure off some of those immediate needs through a bonding package the more flexibility we're going to have in the future where a town like Grand Forks is ready to make those bigger commitments like a new bridge or new overpass off the interstate, things like that. And of course, in Grand Forks, we also have the EERC at UND, which is just one of the preeminent leaders in the country and environmental and energy research. So when our bonding packages look at investing in the long-term future of the state, I think those research dollars are also something we should consider as well.
Dave: How about the budget for higher education? I know that's still pending in the state senate. They've taken a committee vote on it. It's going to be on the floor next week. Is there something about that budget that really you'd like to see?
Rep. Ista: Absolutely. The University of North Dakota is just such a foundational part of Grand Forks. And I have so much respect for all of the educators there who have done just an amazing job through unprecedented circumstances here with COVID-19. I also have respect for the students who have been flexible and adaptable and leaders in our community and showing us how to live safely with COVID but also go about our daily functions. So, you know, UND is just an amazing part of the Grand Forks community and I think we have to recognize that by prioritizing our institutions of higher education through the budget process. You know, President Armacost has done a good job, I think, educating lawmakers, educating the public about budget cuts or just a flat growth in the budget really is going to probably lead to job cuts. So this isn't just about numbers on the ledger here. This is about people's livelihoods, and those are important considerations as we try to finalize that budget. Because if we're going to be cutting or keeping that budget static, we're going to have to figure out how to replace those jobs that we're bound to lose, and that's a big deal for places like Grand Forks and Fargo and our other towns and cities across the state with the university. So I really hope we can come to some agreement in the budget that recognizes how important higher ed is to the state and does so by making sure we're funding it fully and properly.
Dave: So you're looking at it as an investment in the future of North Dakota, and that's what the university system has been trying to sell to the legislature. You invest in higher education, you're investing in the future.
Rep. Ista: That's absolutely right. I mean, not only are our institutes of higher education where we are training our next generation of workers and leaders, whether that's in industry or in education themselves, but it's also where a lot of the research happens in this state. You know, so when we talk about solutions to our our energy approaches here in North Dakota, it's our universities that help drive that research. So, yes, you're right. It's not just an expenditure. It is an investment. And I think like any investment, if we put in those dollars to our university system, we should expect a robust return on that investment. I think we will get that if we invest in the university system.
Dave: And going one step further, there's been a lot of talk about more money for research at UND and ESU and the other nine campuses in the system. But UND and ESU being the big research universities, there's been a real push on, Valley Prosperity Partnership has been pushing for it to see some more money put into research. From your perspective, would that be something that you hope comes out of this session?
Rep. Ista: I do. Like you said, University of North Dakota and our friends south on I-29 at NDSU are, both, statewide and regional and, in many cases, national leaders in research. We're helping our students be on the cutting edge of some of these really important research projects, not only in energy, but in biotech and bioscience, and we're also helping our faculty at these institutions become leaders in their field. And again, to go back to that investment framing on this, those dollars, I think, will be returned to the state many times over if we can be the state that figures out how to have cleaner energy technologies, or we can have the newest nanotechnology come out of Fargo or Grand Forks. So I am hopeful that we take a serious look at continuing our investment in research, and I certainly would be supportive of any funds we can dedicate from the budget to those research institutions.
Dave: Well, you talk about EERC, and that brings up the discussion that was held on a committee this week. There are bills that are trying to help the coal industry when it seems like we're going more and more toward renewable energy. EERC has been involved in Project Tundra to capture carbon dioxide stored underground, maybe using it for enhanced oil recovery. How do you think that's going at this point?
Rep. Ista: You know, I think we are seeing firsthand with what's going on in Texas this week that the energy issues statewide, nationwide, globally are some of the most complex we deal with. And people, unfortunately, they've been quick to point fingers, thinking they found the the one true solution to all of our woes. But that's simply just not the case. I think we all generally agree on an all of the above energy approach, and we do that because every one of these sources has positive and negative components to them. You know, of course the coal industry is a major economic force here in the state. We keep hearing it's about a $5 billion annual impact, 3000 direct jobs, 10,000 indirect jobs. So when we had an opportunity to provide a tax holiday, I voted in favor of that. But I do recognize that this is an energy that is trending away from North Dakota's interests, and it's not primarily because of the wind industry or government regulation. This is primarily being driven by market forces. We hear a lot about these ESG, the environmental and social governance standards that the big corporations are putting in place because they recognize that while coal has advantages of being affordable and a stable energy source in these cold winter months, it certainly is an emitter of carbon. Carbon contributes to our climate change, and I just don't think there can be any plausible deniability of the dangerous effects of a changing climate at this point. But then when you look at wind, that also has to be part of the solution as well. Because what it has as an advantage is it addresses those climate concerns. It's a clean form of energy, but of course we have to worry about its reliability in colder months, being able to store it, being overly dependent on it. So if we're going to talk about all of the above approach, which I support, let's be consistent on that so when bad situations arise, we don't just target one of those options for blame. Let's come together and figure out the best ways to make our fossil fuels cleaner if at all possible. And if that is possible, I have all the faith in the world that EERC can be a leader in that. But if we're deciding based on the market that coal is not going to be a big part of our longterm future, then North Dakota should stand ready to lead on wind, on solar and other renewable energies as well, because we have the space to do it, we have the brain power to do it. We had the manpower to do it, and I think all we need is the political will to make sure we can do that transition. But while we are doing that, I'm going to stand in support of those jobs out in coal country as well to make sure they're not the ones bearing the brunt of sudden changes in the market when it comes to energy.
Dave: That could be part of a bigger discussion about our energy future, not only in North Dakota, but in the nation, perhaps in the world as well.
Rep. Ista: That's absolutely right. You know, when we talk about things like climate change, I don't begrudge the president all from looking globally at the issues of climate change. It's his responsibility to see the whole field. And when you look at that whole field I think you do have to be very concerned about the effects on climate change. You certainly can't pinpoint any one discreet weather event on climate change. But when we have massive cold snaps not only in the Dakotas, but going down all the way into Texas, we should be thinking about what the long-term effects of more extreme weather patterns is going to mean for North Dakota. But like I was saying, it can sometimes feel in North Dakota like we'll bring asked to solve that problem on the backs of our coal miners and our workers out in the oil field. But I think we can do this in a way that gets us to a cleaner energy future while transitioning those workers in the interim to make sure they're able to keep their families fed, able to keep their own lights on at home because those are good paying jobs here in the state and the economic impact is undeniable. But let's be leaders in this and make sure we're on a path towards a cleaner, more sustainable future that helps those workers come with us rather than be left behind.
Dave: Let me pivot again because it's something I've been thinking about for a little bit. There's the potential for a $1.9 trillion COVID relief package from the Biden administration at Congress. North Dakota could get some substantial money out of that and it might come while the legislature is still in session. What are your caucus people talking about in terms of where they'd like to see some of that money go should that come to fruition? Or maybe yourself.
Rep. Ista: Yeah, it's really one of the biggest unresolved issues hanging over this entire session, because certainly, we saw in 2020 what that influx of federal dollars can do. And unfortunately, when it happened during an interim year those spending decisions ended up being made by very small group of people with no Democrat representation on that committee. If the money comes while we're in session I think that does give us an opportunity to reassert our prerogative as a legislative body and help make those decisions at the state level for how those funds are going to be spent. So we keep hearing new figures, it seems like, every day, if not multiple times a day. Is it $500 million? Is it $700 million? Is it going to be tied to our unemployment numbers from the fourth quarter of 2020? And when I checked this morning, I think Congress was back to hashing out those details in the House, and then of course, we'll see what the Senate does if and when the House passes the bill. But I sure I'm hopeful we get those answers here in the next few weeks so that we, as a legislative assembly, can figure out a way to use that money for many of the things we talked about with bonding, with our legacy fund earnings, those infrastructure needs, those long-term investments in the state. And it always has the bonus effect of freeing up some of our general fund dollars for other a priority needs for North Dakota as well.
Dave: What I'm hearing from leadership is a lot of one-time harvest things. One-time harvest projects, get them done, plus maybe a billion dollars, if there's that much money, to go and make the PERS fund whole, the retirement system whole. And then I heard this today and I just wanted to get your reaction to it, to go from the defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan. This has been argued many a session. Any thoughts about that?
Rep. Ista: That has been an issue that has been talked about in the hallways a little bit. And I haven't been in that specific conversation that you heard today so I don't have a firm position on it this time. But what I do know is we have to take a look at that retirement fund and realize, just like our roads and bridges, this is not a problem that's going to go away through half measures or through ignoring it all together. We are at some point going to have to invest either through a cash influx or some changes to the structure of the plan to make it solvent, to make it whole again, and that's something I do think we have to prioritize. That certainly could be one use of any federal funds we get injected into the state. I would certainly be open to those conversations. But again, details are going to have to be sorted out when we see what those numbers are and I look forward to hearing input from leaders in that area.
Dave: In the minute and a half we have left, I want to ask you a couple of questions, just again, about the legislature itself. What has surprised you about this session so far?
Rep. Ista: I'm not surprise is quite the right word, but I wish people could see how politicians and lawmakers from across the political spectrum can come together on a personal level. I mean, I certainly have strong substantive disagreements across the aisle sometimes within my own caucus, but you know, we find a way to be friendly with one another, we find a way to collaborate with one another. I think to a person everyone I've talked to is always open to hearing my point of view and I'm open to hearing their points of view as well. So if all you do is tune into the national political scene or watch cable news every night, I think you would worry that we are hopelessly broken politically. But I'd invite everybody to come here to the legislature and listen to those of us that have become friendly, sit and joke and talk about our kids and our jobs and our passions and listen with open hearts and open minds to everybody's idea of regardless of party. And at the end of the day, we're going to have sharp political disagreements, but I'm hopeful those personal relationships can at least help us envision everyone else's perspective and maybe move forward together to make North Dakota a better place for everybody.
Dave: Well, I'd like to thank you, Representative Ista, for taking the time, which is very close to crossover, so it's very busy. But thank you so much.
Rep. Ista: Really, thank you so much. I hope you'll get a chance to watch the end of the regular season for UND hockey. I know you're a fan.
Dave: I hope so too. Thank you.
Rep. Ista: Take care.
Dave: Our guest, Representative Zach Ista from Grand Forks. He's a first term Democrat. And for Prairie Public and Legislative Review, I'm Dave Thompson.