On this week's North Dakota Legislative Review: Senator Brad Bekkedahl (R-Williston) talks about the session so far, his attempts to add a short Legislative session in the even-numbered years, and his thoughts about the upcoming reapportionment.
Watch a video of the conversation on our YouTube channel.
Dave: This is Legislative Review on Prairie Public's radio and digital platforms. I'm Dave Thompson. Thanks for joining us. Today, which is crossover week by the way, we have Senator Brad Bekkedahl, a Williston Republican, joining us. Senator, thank you very much for taking your time.
Sen. Bekkedahl: Thank you, David. It's always great to be here with you and your audience. Appreciate it.
Dave: Well, I'm just kind of thinking we're at crossover now, where do you see things right now in terms of how the Senate's doing and what you've got ahead of you from the House?
Sen. Bekkedahl: Well, David, I would tell you that I'm very pleased at the progress we made, especially in light of the pandemic and the issues we had coming into this. As you might know, I spent the first week of the session home with COVID actually, I had the infection early and participated remotely and it worked unbelievably well. We've had a few others that have had to do that this session as well. But I think as the Senate majority leader pointed out in our floor session that just ended, we only had two active cases identified during the first half of the session here before crossover, which was a remarkable number. I think most legislatures across the country have had many more cases than that. So kudos to the public that's been involved, kudos to the legislators and our staff in particular for keeping everybody safe and allowing us to get, I think done in a record time in terms of the Senate agenda.
Dave: Is it because of the new electronics allowing people to testify from home that has allowed you to get some things done in a better time perhaps?
Sen. Bekkedahl: I think that's been one of the issues that we've had. Our legislative council staff did a remarkable job in putting together the technology needed on a short notice basis. And I think that's been one of the issues we've dealt with here, but I think also besides the fact that it has allowed us to do things more efficiently, it's also I think become a better transparent process for the public. And I think the communication has been improved. If you look at the statistics, we've had a phenomenal number of people following our committees as well as testifying.
Dave: Now, one thing you do hear from some legislators is they miss some of the milieu. You miss the kids being around when they come down to watch a session, you miss a lot of the the people who come up to the Capitol, maybe some lobbyists, et cetera. It is a different field but maybe it's a more efficient field.
Sen. Bekkedahl: Well, I think it has been. I really feel bad for the school kids that used to come because they used to so enjoy this. It would make all of our days when we could have the kids next to us and, you know, the comments from them afterwards about what a great experience it was for them. But hopefully, next session we get back to that again. I think it's good for them, but I also think that the trade-off in terms of participation we've had great numbers, as I said.
Dave: So it probably won't be to the level it's been in the past, but the fact you've got the electronics involved is going to help out going forward.
Sen. Bekkedahl: I think so. And I think it's changed our world. but I think it's ultimately changed it for the better. Again, more transparency and better communication and the engagement of the public I think because they don't have to be here to see us and communicate with us. I think it's been improved remarkably.
Dave: Now you're a member of appropriations committee. And let me ask you the big issues you're watching as the session goes into its second period of the three-period hockey game.
Sen. Bekkedahl: Well, you always have the big budget bills. In fact, we just ended the crossover break right now with the appropriations for the university system which is about 15% of our budget. So we've sent that over along with some other large budgets, commerce, industrial commission. These are all agency budgets by the way. Department of corrections, transportation. Going forward we're going to now see the bills from the House in the second half that have their agency bills and large ones are going to be the largest we'll see is going to be department of human services. We'll see that in the last half of the session. And we'll also see the DPI budget, K-12 budget. So big budgets coming over to us. We've sent some big budgets their way, but I think things are looking remarkably well in the budget wise, from what I've seen so far too.
Dave: Now you were chairman of the subcommittee that looked at commerce, correct?
Sen. Bekkedahl: Correct.
Dave: What kind of changes do will we see in the commerce department?
Sen. Bekkedahl: Well, a couple of changes we're going to see is we're going to continue to fund at a very high level. The UAS programs continue to build out that system in Grand Forks and actually move some of the programs out West now because we're looking at the beyond visual line of sight. Build-out's occurring right now in the Bakken region. And we're going to see that actually start to be used for pipeline inspections and even some agriculture enhancements out there. So that will be the start of the total statewide system once we get that out. So you'll see some appropriations going that way again. I think that's going to be a continuing basis until the system is built out. By the way, we were ranked by a national publication as number one in UAS system development. So the state's done very well there. Also we had a couple of issues within the budget where we were carrying some appropriations that really belonged in other budgets, we've moved them out. So I think that's been beneficial. We're finally getting them where they belong, getting them the home they need. We've moved a lot of home programs over to the housing finance agency. We moved early childhood learning over to where it belongs out of the commerce budget, but in the area that deals with that. So I think you're going to see more of that happening as we go along. The commerce budget is really been a catch-all in the past and it will continue to be that way. But once these programs mature and need to move to their right homes, we're doing that.
Dave: Well, let me ask you about the bonding bill because the House has passed a bonding bill that looks somewhat different from the one that was originally introduced. It's down to about $680 million and there's a lot on water projects. What is your opinion of the bonding bill as the way it stands right now?
Sen. Bekkedahl: It's a lot lighter than most of us envisioned it was going to be. I've been a proponent of bonding for many, many years Dave, as you know, and we've used it in the city of Williston as a tool, mostly for cash management because we had to do that with the Bakken extremes that we were dealing with out there. But also the bonding environment right now is very beneficial. If you're already going to spend money on projects, bonding is a way to level out that expenditure so we're not doing it all in these peaks and valleys we do. When we have money we spend it, when we don't, we don't spend it. It'll be better for the construction industry to have that going on. They'll have a level apportionment of their projects out there. They can stay in state, they can keep their employees here. They're not moving out of state to do work when we don't have any funds to do that. But that being said, the bonding bill that the House is going to send us as I said, a little lighter than we envisioned. We're at record low interest rates for record long periods of time right now. I think we should take advantage of that because not just to spend the money. This is not spending on wants, this has spending on needs. In terms of the water allocations that are coming to us, we've already allocated funding agreements to the diversion in Fargo. This is going to take the money out of the resources trust fund that we would normally tie up there, put it into bonding and actually get that project funded. We're going to take the funding we've already authorized for Minot, do the same thing for their flood control. For the WAWSP project, We're going to get some funding taken out to do that as well. So I think it's a win-win because we take many hundreds of millions of dollars of project dedications out of the stream right now that's in the resources trust fund and that's going to free up those dollars because we're using them in bonding instead. That's going to free up those dollars for the smaller municipals and the smaller projects out there that aren't getting funded because we have these huge projects sitting there trying to get funded as well.
Dave: Not to put too fine a point on it but do you expect there might be a move in the Senate to increase the amount for bonding?
Sen. Bekkedahl: I think there's some projects we had, we had some preferences to on the Senate side that were taken out and I and I think you can look for those to come back in. One of them is the CTE projects, the career academies out there. I don't know what form it's going to take but I think you'll look for a preference for the Senate to put that back in, in some form or fashion. I don't think you'll see necessarily what I call pet projects, that are just specific building projects that were in the House originally. I don't think you'll see those coming out of the Senate, but I do think you'll see some preferences inserted and they'll become conference committee discussions at the end of the session.
Dave: That will be a conference ready to watch.
Sen. Bekkedahl: Yeah, it will be. That that probably will be the conference committee to watch actually, Dave.
Dave: You're probably right. Secondly, you talked a little bit about corrections, but I'm a little unsure about what's happening in corrections in terms of taking the youth correctional center in Mandan and making more of a women's, shall we say minimum security prison? Am I correct on that?
Sen. Bekkedahl: Yeah, that's something the department has advocated for a couple of sessions now and really, their reasoning for doing it is that as you know we've been trying to turn our corrections system from a place to put capacity for solely used to put people in prison because they had an addiction issue and prison might be able to treat the addiction issue. We're now changing our philosophy and we've been doing that through our justice reinventing program for the last three sessions. And the idea is we're going to try and intercept the addiction problems before they become criminal issues that put people in prison. I think that makes total sense. So we're trying to get people out of our prison system into treatment programs. What you're seeing with that change is the facility in New England is a wonderful facility and they do a wonderful job there, but they don't have access to the programs for the addiction issues like the Bismarck Mandan area does. So I think what they're trying to do is take the people that fit the need, bring them to that facility in Mandan and see if we can't help out with the availability of resources that this area already has to treat those issues.
Dave: Since it's intertwined, let's talk a little about human services and addiction treatment. For several bienniums now, there have been reports saying North Dakota needs to do more in terms of community-based treatment. Where it stands now, has the state made progress in this?
Sen. Bekkedahl: Well, I think we have in terms of funding the issues where we already have the facilities, I think we're doing better there. Jamestown, Bismarck, we have beds in Fargo. We have beds in Grand Forks. We have beds in Bismarck. We don't have beds out West. And I think that's the issue we're going to try and deal with when the human services budget comes over here. I know in Williston, I still sit on the city commission there, we run the ambulance service as a city. We're the only ones that still do that. We're not private there. It costs us hundreds of thousands of dollars a year transporting patients from our hospital facility to these treatment bed areas for in-treatment programs. We'd like to see beds out West where we can keep them there. And also what we're finding out, is if you can deliver the treatment in an area, inpatient treatment in an area where the families still reside, you can take care of the family issues as well as the patient issues. We think that's a better road to recovery. So I think you'll see that happening in some form or fashion.
Dave: So this is, I guess the million dollar question. How do you make it happen? How do you get treatment out to Williston, Dickinson, the West?
Sen. Bekkedahl: Really, it comes down to funding. We can find the treatment providers. In fact, we've had great interest from treatment providers that want to come to those areas but you have to have facilities. Facilities are hugely expensive. We looked at a wing in our hospital in Williston that the county and the city wanted to renovate for the hospital to put in the inpatient program, and to provide eight treatment rooms was a cost of four to $6 million. So you're talking about a high cost in terms of the facilities and not very many residents being able to get into that. So we need to work on that side of it. We've got to get the beds in place and then bring the providers in. As I said, the providers are willing to come in.
Dave: Is that possible bonding?
Sen. Bekkedahl: Well, we thought it would fit into the bonding. It's an infrastructure issue. I mean, you're talking about buildings, you're talking about roads, you're talking about water. Those are all infrastructure issues. We think it would have fit in there, but that's going to be our discussion for leadership to have when the bonding bill comes over.
Dave: Well, let me ask about infrastructure then, because a lot of money has been spent in the Williston area for the reliever routes and upgrading 85. But from what I hear, there's more work to be done, correct?
Sen. Bekkedahl: There is highway 85. Really the grand plan is to have that system four laned all the way down to 94. So we have this system in the state. We have a box with a center corridor between Bismarck and Mandan and that puts literally every resident in the state within 50 miles of some four-lane highway system for safe travel. And we want to get that finished, obviously before we four laned the system between Williston and Watford City during the Dalrymple years as governor. There was one year where over 52% or excuse me, over 50% of the highway fatalities occurred in those two counties in that one year. Something had to be done, and it's made tremendous difference in the fatality rates that we're seeing in McKinsey and Williams counties. So we know by extrapolating that we've got more of the highway to do and more of the fatalities issues to take care of. And we want to finish that system. We're looking at a system right now, DOT is onboard to complete Watford City down to the new Long X Bridge, the four-lane bridge we just put in place down there, huge effort, and that's another 10 or 12 mile stretch. From there we have about 40 miles to go down to Belfield and we'll take it in two more stretches to do that. It'll eventually get done, but that's where I think the infrastructure bonding is important too.
Dave: And of course, there's the idea that Roosevelt Expressway too, as 85.
Sen. Bekkedahl: Yeah. And I've been working on a national coalition out of Texas. Actually, I sit on a board for National Highway Association out of Texas, just trying to complete that system from the Mexican border all the way to Canada. And actually what we're doing, is we're trying to build a four-lane system about 3000 miles. And right now we have about 60% of that already completed. So we're very close to getting that done. But North Dakota is a partner in that. And highway 85 is part of that route.
Dave: And we talked about infrastructure. We talk about two years ago, you had the Prairie Dog bill and that was an extra bucket for oil money. Part of that's filled up now, but it's a little unsure about when the next part's gonna fill up. How has that affected your city?
Sen. Bekkedahl: Well, actually Williston is a hub city under that formula with the oil funding. So we retain our funding and actually our funding is reduced because of the price of oil and the production issues we've had, but it is stable now. We don't have a sunset to that, that we used to have every two years. We would have to come in and again ask for the formula to be renewed. My sympathies go out to the communities that are in that bucket system, but not getting funded right now. We need to get that done. I think to really do that, we have to change the order the buckets actually fill in but the House changed it last time and moved a strategic infrastructure fund above that funding level. And that's what's preventing them from getting their full funding right now under these price and production scenarios. So it would be nice to get those communities funded just as we have been.
Dave: There've been a few, I don't know if you want to call them critics of SIIF the Strategic Investment Infrastructure Fund, that that's a second general fund for the state of North Dakota. Just wanted to get your reaction to that.
Sen. Bekkedahl: You know, it really has been. I mean that's how we balance a budget that since its inception, we used to have the permanent oil tax trust fund which was never permanent to begin with. We spent the money all the time. It was before I got here in the legislature but I knew about it. And the SIIF fund is actually acted the same way. And, you know, there's merit to the fact that we need the money and it's there for us to use, but I tend to agree with the governor the executive branch on this, and that we take $400 million of oil funds for the general fund right now. And people say well, we're not dependent on oil because of that. But then we take another seven or 800 million out of the SIIF fund, which is oil money and and balance the budget with that too. So I agree with the governor that we should probably just be very transparent and say we're going to take a billion dollars of oil money and put it in the general fund at the start of the year. And that's going to balance our budget for us. I think it's easier to understand that way. But again, those are decisions made above my pay grade. That's just a personal opinion, but I think it would be better for us to do that.
Dave: Well, speaking of money, there is that potential $1.9 trillion COVID relief fund two if you want to call it that, and I'm hearing figures that it could be somewhere around 4 billion for the state of North Dakota, how is that going to affect things?
Sen. Bekkedahl: Those numbers are actually based on a per-person basis for the total amount. I did the math and showed the leader what I thought it would be, about 4.2 to 4.3 billion. I'm told that the actual funding for our state is going to provide a little over a billion dollars, not the 4 billion. So whether it's our status as a small state or not I don't know why that number is taken down but when that money comes through, if it does come through, there's a portion of it, about $250 million that's going to be allocated to local political subdivisions, cities and counties. And then the rest will come to the state. How the pass-through works is not defined at this point but I'm happy that the cities and counties get some enablement to have some of that money right upfront because I think they need some revenue enhancements from what they've gone through as well. For the state perspective, I don't know where the money's going to go once it hits the state coffers, whether it will supplant some general fund allocations we've already made, or whether it will be used for some things that need to be done. As you know, we've been dealing with our pension fund. Our PERS pension fund is funded at about 63% We've talked about ways to put some money into that fund to beef it up and get us on a trajectory for full funding at some point. You can do that either by increasing the percentages that employees pay and the employers pay, or you can do it by putting a lump sum of money in there, or you can do it by both. And I've advocated a combination of the two. I think the employees have a responsibility as well as us. So some of that money may be diverted into the PERS fund. I don't know, at this point.
Dave: Well, Senator Warner has talked about putting some of the money in the PERS fund. And at the time when they're talking the $4 billion number, he was taking a billion of that and making the PERS fun whole. And then he said something that has been controversial in the past, converting from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan. Your thoughts.
Sen. Bekkedahl: Well, that's been around for a while, Dave. I mean, actually in the 2013 or 2015 session there was a bill to do that. I think that we would have had to put between 200 and $300 million into the fund to make it whole, because you have to make the fund whole to 100% before you can take out the funding stream that's going into it and become defined contribution versus defined benefit. We should have made that happen at that time. We didn't. Now the fund is actually deficient by about $1.4 billion. So Senator Warner is correct if we could've made that whole I think we could have made that switch. And personally, I think the switch benefits the employees as well as the state to do that. So I would be in favor of doing that if we could find the funding to do it. I think it's too big a lift right now with what we have to fund to make it whole. But you know, every journey begins with one small step. We need to take that step.
Dave: Okay, well, we talk about this COVID relief funds. We don't know when it's coming yet to North Dakota. It's still pending in Congress, but if you're still in session and that money comes in, how does that complicate the process or maybe ease up the process possibly?
Sen. Bekkedahl: If it comes in while we're still here, it's going to make for some scrambling towards the end of the session to make the adjustments. I think we can do that. If it comes in after that, I think we're going to have to hopefully have some days to come back and deal with some issues. As you know, my annual sessions bill talks directly about this. I think every legislator has a fiduciary responsibility to do appropriations, not just the budget section, even though I sit on that section, I still think everybody should be here to do that. So if it's towards the end of this year, we could potentially do it next year in the annual sessions bill, if it passes or if we have days left over, we could call ourselves back. But I would be a proponent of bringing the full legislature back to deal with that.
Dave: About your annual sessions bill. It's changed a little bit and did get passed in the Senate. Explain what changed.
Sen. Bekkedahl: We decided to go with a recommendation from one of the senators and said, really with all we dealt with, with COVID, with what we deal with with the revenue shortfalls and all the things we made apparent in the bill to begin with, the recommendation is why don't you sunset it to just this biennium and give people the opportunity to see how it works. And I agreed with that assessment. Ultimately we passed the bill 28 to 19, which is a pretty good margin in the Senate and we'll send it to the House with that. So it'll give people the opportunity to vote for it in the House to say, okay, maybe it's time. Let's try it. And ultimately, David, we're not adding days. It's still up to 80 days in the constitution. We'd only be using three days under this scenario for what I call a short session for a fiscal review to make adjustments if we need to.
Dave: What I've heard is possibly the appropriations committee would come in early. It would not be counted as a legislative day but then the appropriations committee would work on budget adjustments and then have a bill ready to go when the legislature came back for those three days.
Sen. Bekkedahl: Absolutely David and that's just being wise with your assets to use it that way to to come in and get that done. Anything we would have to do in a three-day session would have to have a recommendation before we do it anyway. So even if there's an issue that deals with human services that had to be dealt with on an emergency basis we could bring the human services committees back and do the same thing and have a recommendation prepared to do that. So it's going to be a very different process for us, but I think a very manageable process to do that.
Dave: You've also coming up this fall or maybe into winter because the numbers are not going to be out as early as people thought, a reapportionment session, redrawing legislative districts. Number one, do you want to be on that committee?
Sen. Bekkedahl: I've expressed an interest. I've never had the opportunity. I was here after the 2010 and '11 sessions where they dealt with that. So I've expressed an interest. It's really gonna come down to who is selected in the House and then who do we have to select in the Senate to complement that? So it would be, I think for my region, we have to have somebody involved in that process. And hopefully if it's not me, somebody in the region is. As you know, we've seen extreme growth out there. I don't know how much the numbers will be down from what the oil collapse did to us right during the the census apportionment as we saw. But we have three districts out there, 39 district one, district two, which is really district one and two are Williston. We saw growth in that area of up to about 73,000 people in those three districts and 73,000 would translate into about four districts instead of three out there. So Fargo has seen the growth. Fargo, West Fargo. I think you have to deal with that as well. The big thing that the districting plan has to deal with in my mind is do we stay at 47 districts or do we to go to 49 districts? Because the rural districts continue to get so large with the not necessarily loss of population in those districts, but the growth in the urban areas.
Dave: So are you advocating for 49?
Sen. Bekkedahl: Well, I think we need to do what we can to accommodate the rural areas. At some point it just gets to be too unmanageable to have a representation of three people over the thousands of square miles they have to deal without there. So I would be not a proponent, but certainly sympathetic to that.
Dave: Do you think you can get reapportionment done in a three- to five-day session?
Sen. Bekkedahl: I think if the committee has enough time to bring the recommendations, and I think we can. I'm worried about the committee having enough time with what's happening at the federal level and not having the information. We'll probably have to adjust timelines in terms of even some of the voting timelines that are in statute during that apportionment session as well just because they're talking about not getting us the information 'til end of September and that timeline could slip, and we're supposed to have a reapportionment session in November. I dunno how they get it done, but we have good workers here that I think could do that.
Dave: I know that Senator Warner again, may have talked about we might have to have it in December just because of the time to get hearings out there and get people some input on how the lines are going to be redrawn.
Sen. Bekkedahl: Right. Because as you know, what's critical to how we work is we have public input and the leader's exactly right. We don't want to do this without a public input opportunity. So if it happens in December, I think we might have to adjust some election timelines as well.
Dave: Okay. Just a short answer, Senator. Is there one or two bills or budgets that may bog down at the end of the session?
Sen. Bekkedahl: I don't know if bogged down would be the word to use, but I think that the bonding bill will be one that is at the end of the session. I think human services always seems to be at the end of the session. And then I think it as just a topic, infrastructure will be at the end of the session. So I think those three will be the big issues.
Dave: There'll be a lot to watch for.
Sen. Bekkedahl: Yes.
Dave: Thank you, Senator. Thanks for the time.
Sen. Bekkedahl: Appreciate being here. Thank you, David.
Dave: Our guest on Legislative Review, Senator Brad Bekkedahl of Williston, he's a Republican, he's on the Senate appropriations committee. He's also a member of the Williston city council. Thanks again.
Sen. Bekkedahl: Thanks David.
Dave: For Prairie Public, I'm Dave Thompson.