On this week's Legislative Review, Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman (D-New Rockford) discusses bonding and infrastructre, proposals for family leave and state employee pay, and how the Legislature might handle a new federal COVID-19 package.
Watch a video of the conversation on our YouTube channel.
Dave: This is Legislative Review on Prairie Public on our radio service and on our digital platforms. I'm Dave Thompson. Thanks for joining us. We now have the Senate minority leader, Joan Heckaman of New Rockford, who is with us today. Senator, thank you very much for being here.
Senator Joan Heckaman: Thanks for the invitation. I always love to come visit with you.
Dave: Let me just ask you from your perspective, I've asked everybody this so far, what's your impression of the session so far? It seems to be it has a different feel to a lot of people.
Sen. Heckaman: It does. It seems quieter, the session, although I have to say this last week now it's been picking up. There's more activity, we've got more contentious bills out on the floor to debate and I'm seeing a few more lobbyists around.
Dave: And that'll probably increase as we get toward crossover, perhaps.
Sen. Heckaman: And I hope so. I mean, we rely on everybody's viewpoint when we're working on policy and on appropriations and their viewpoints are important to us. And the more input that we can have, the better decisions I think we make in the end.
Dave: You know, it would it be fair to say the Democrats came in with some objectives they wanted to accomplish this session.
Sen. Heckaman: We did. We always do. You know, we're looking at a bonding bill, we're looking at legacy fund interest uses. We have a lot of initiatives between the Senate and the House for families, for education, for transportation. And we always bring our list as we come into the session prepared and then know that as we move through and hit those deadlines for bill introductions that we may add a few more things as we go along.
Dave: Since you brought up the bonding bill, I have to ask you, there are three bonding proposals still on the table. You have Senator Mathern's of 2 million, you have the governor's of 1.2 million, which I don't exactly know where that is right now and you've got the Republicans who've reduced those to $800 million. And the Republicans plan is basically focused on water projects primarily and especially the FM Diversion. The Democrat plan that Tim Mathern has introduced is fairly open-ended. They talked about areas but not necessarily specific projects. So I know it's pretty early but where do you think this might start sifting out of so to speak?
Sen. Heckaman: I think it's already gonna start sifting out. Our plan of $2 billion was increased. We put it out there last summer at 1.25 billion and with the intention and they ask that we have a special session because of COVID to work with not only the bonding bill but the COVID funds at the same time. And we came in with the understanding that we needed to increase that because of the needs out there, especially infrastructure needs, the K-12 higher education, issues that need bonding and water projects that are out there. So we increased that. And right now as I sit in appropriations, when we hit a section that has a capital improvement or a bonding request in it, we've been leaving those in right now on the committees that I've been working on and leaving that line item in there because we don't have this final decision on the bonding bills.
Dave: What is your feel of the Senate? Is there still some resistance to bonding in the Senate?
Sen. Heckaman: I haven't canvassed all the Senate members right now but we had a good response to Senator Mathern's bill when we presented that to the Senate appropriations committee. There's a lot of things in there that they like. And I think one of the benefits of that bill is it uses all existing agencies right now. We aren't creating anything new. We're putting the funds out there in the housing finance, we're putting them out in places that can already be instantly presented out to our communities.
Dave: Are you satisfied with the way the discussions have gone so far on that?
Sen. Heckaman: On the bonding bills?
Sen. Heckaman: Yeah, I think that we've had some good discussions, and especially, you know, I sit in appropriations every day and those topics come up from time to time and are melded into every agency budget somewhere along the way and so I don't know when that final decision is going to be made but hopefully we get there soon because I think until we decide on bonding, we're not gonna be able to finish up the final decisions on any agency budgets.
Dave: I don't wanna keep on the subject too long but I thought right away when bonding was talked about and there were three separate proposals, that bonding was going to be one of the defining issues of the session. Am I wrong?
Sen. Heckaman: No, I think you're right. I think bonding is. And then the other one is the legacy interest, how to use that. There are several proposals out there for that. And that's gonna be important as we go forward. I don't think anybody wants to use it to shore up the general fund anymore. I think that's pretty much off the table. The conversations are more projects that benefit the state and our communities in the long run.
Dave: I hear that a lot. That there should be some kind of quote legacy projects, end quote. So where do you come down on that in terms of what would you like to see it used for?
Sen. Heckaman: Well, we have some places for education for our families out there. We have a lot of initiatives for the communities to build stronger families and to make sure that the communities have projects. One of the exciting ones that we have, and it's a small portion of our funds, is for the arts and culture. You know, we talk about bridges and we talk about roads and those are very important to our economy in North Dakota. We talk about our K-12 schools. We talk about healthcare. All those things are so important. And we focus on those a lot during, I mean, that's our main focus during session. But we also need to understand that COVID has taken us a different route with our arts and culture. And we know that those things our communities are missing right now. So if we can build anything in our communities that enhance the arts and culture, those are things that I think we need to do too.
Dave: Are you thinking about museums, performance venues or--
Sen. Heckaman: Exactly.
Sen. Heckaman: Exactly, yes. I know there are several communities around the state that have started their own local life theaters now and they've been really well-received and they've been so important to the communities.
Dave: I know COVID has been kind of an overarching subject of the session, given all the things that you had to do in order to allow social distancing, to wear masks, but I heard a lot about that today when the Senate, as we're recording this, has passed a bill 40 to seven to basically say, "We're gonna call the legislature back into special session "or have the governor call it back to the special session "within 60 days after a disaster that's declared." And it looked to me like it was possibly a party line vote with the Democrats siding more with the governor. Am I correct?
Sen. Heckaman: You know, I don't know if the party line vote indicated we were siding with the governor as much as there are a number of other bills out there that address the same thing. And we wanna make sure that as we get to the end of the session, we're doing this correctly and in a way and a manner that makes sure that we can access those federal funds. I'm on a bill that's in the House. It's probably not a bill I would support right now given what I know about the removal of federal funds if we act too soon. And so the governor has some power there that brings those funds into our state. He's got the power that we don't have as the legislature. There were parts of the bill today that I liked even though I voted against it. And the things that I like about it is it gives the legislature oversight when the governor does an executive order. Those executive orders negate some of the current century code laws for the time being and put them on hold. And we've gotta make sure that that doesn't go on too long in certain situations
Dave: I know that early on about that, that the Democrats were calling for a special session too early before the regular session got in place to take a look at the COVID response, the federal dollars and where they're going. You usually would still have the opportunity to call yourselves back in a special session, right?
Sen. Heckaman: We do. I mean, there's always that opportunity if we have enough days left. You know, we have to look at the calendar. That's one thing that we as the legislature do. The governor can call us in basically anytime on executive order too. So, it all depends on who's doing it and what we have left for days.
Dave: Since we're on that subject, I wanted to ask you about this. There seems to be maybe movement towards some kind of another COVID 19 relief bill and what that means as far as money for state government programs, nobody really seems to know just yet. But could that have an effect on your spending plans if it came down while you're still in session?
Sen. Heckaman: Well, Dave, I think it would. I think that there are a few budgets out there that we've been looking at that have some COVID undertones to them. And it's been mentioned into some of our sub committee work that if we get COVID funding, it could be put in a certain specific way like highway patrol salaries and things like that that were used this last round when we got the COVID money. So those are some things we don't know right now. So when I'm in appropriations, I'm proceeding ahead like we don't really have those funds. And because we don't know if they're gonna be there for sure. So anytime I'm looking at a budget right now, I'm going ahead and saying, "Well, we don't know that that's gonna be there "so let's plan without it."
Dave: I think you have to because nobody really does know until it passes Congress and gets signed by the president.
Sen. Heckaman: Exactly.
Dave: You also had a bill about reapportionment that you wanted to have reapportion which is going to be happening this fall, done with the nonpartisan commission to take a look at and provide advisory. That doesn't seem to be a lot of, shall we say appetite for that among the majority party? What do you think?
Sen. Heckaman: You know, I put that bill in. I've had it in before. And it's a plan and a method that other states use to take that issue of partisanship off of the table. Whether you're a red state or blue state, you wanna make sure that your redistricting plans come out as plans that benefit the people not the legislators. And it's hard to get that message through here in North Dakota. Well, there was some support for it. I heard from a few of the committee members after I was done with it. When you go and put the vote on the floor, it doesn't turn out that way, which is understandable. You know, I understand that completely. But I think when we as legislators start looking at the redistricting process, gerrymandering is the word that always comes up. It's not the nicest word in redistricting vocabulary and I can't say that it hasn't been done by both parties. But I think I'd like to take that off the table. I think an independent redistricting commission would bring a recommendation forward. I think it would be a little bit fair. And I think that there's some options out there. We're sitting at 47 legislative districts right now. We don't have to sit at that. And my concern right now is that rural districts are going to get larger, urban centers are going to get a couple more districts, maybe three more. There's no reason why we can't go to 50 districts. My district is vastly larger in size than any district in Fargo and Grand Forks. And I listen to those legislators and they have blocks to drive and I have miles to drive. And it does affect your connections with your constituents for sure.
Dave: So now I'm hearing from you. You wouldn't mind gonna 50. There are some people in the Senate who said 49 might be the number. I've heard that too and even majority leader Wardner said that he would consider 49. Would 49 be acceptable?
Sen. Heckaman: I think, Dave, it's gonna depend on what the census says. We have to wait and see how many more people we have to divide up among the current 47 districts. If it's gonna work out that two more will satisfy that and bring us to a number where our rural districts don't get too much larger, I could live with that. The reason I picked 50 is there's been talk about maybe three more districts. One in the West Fargo area, one in the Bismarck area, and we're not sure what's gonna happen out west with the Watford city area or the Williston area. Those are the ones that we're looking at. Right now, maybe Williston and Watford city won't have a separate district but we don't know that until the numbers come in and we don't have those numbers yet.
Dave: Yeah, they're just preliminary numbers that are out there but the numbers are going to be probably almost toward the the signing day for the session. They may not be in. Is that what's your understanding is?
Sen. Heckaman: That's my understanding. In fact, I heard just recently that we may not have those numbers until the end of June, 1st part of July. And that puts a cramp on our redistricting process because it collapses it together more and there's gonna have to be more meetings quicker and more decisions made quickly.
Dave: And especially when it's been, shall we say the procedure, that you've held hearings around the state. The redistricting committee that is appointed holds sharings around the state, maybe a series of five or six, and they talk to constituents, they present some of the preliminary plans and things like that, do you get some input that way?
Sen. Heckaman: That's true. We do that but it depends on information has to get out to the public on when those meetings are going to be held. And the intake at those meetings could vary from place to place. I hope that we do that and get a good response as we go around redistricting because it's important to the people. They're the ones that we serve and they should have a voice in this too.
Dave: I almost hesitate to ask this question just because it's a little different subject but I know it's gonna be coming up fairly soon. There will be some kind of decisions at least preliminary on a pay plan for state employees. I understand that maybe Senator Mathern again, has a three and three plan, the governor has a two and two plan, what are you hearing?
Sen. Heckaman: Bright. Senator Mathern's plan is one that we're embracing as a minority party in the Senate. It's a three and three plan. It also has a minimum of $80 per month on the low end and a maximum of 300, excuse me, 120 on the low end and 300 on the high end. In appropriations, a suggestion was thrown out there the other day to go two and two which is the governor's plan with 80 on the low end and possibly 300 on the high end. So what that tells me right now is there's some interest in doing minimums and maximums. There's also interest in making sure that we take care of our workers because that's where the important portions for families shows up in both the House and the Senate platforms.
Dave: And of course, that's one of the things that'll probably be one of the last things that will be decided on in the session, I would guess, if past practices are any indication.
Sen. Heckaman: Usually. You're right on that. And it usually comes in on one bill. Right now I think they're shepherding it through the Senate in one bill right now as a sort of what they call a canary in the coal mine and see how it goes. And so we'll see how that works. You know, we have some great state employees out there, we have great workers in other industries too. I can't say that we don't. And if we provide those raises so that families can feel secure and we can keep our workers, that money ends up in our communities. And that's important for our small businesses around our rural areas and our community businesses in our urban areas.
Dave: And we should probably mention that so far I've seen no proposal to have state employees pay any part of their health insurance. That apparently will stay pretty much fully paid.
Sen. Heckaman: It will, Dave. And there was such a small increase this biennium that it was almost a negligible that we can still provide that family health insurance for our employees. It's one of the draws that we have in North Dakota to get good people in and keep good people in our offices and serving our public.
Dave: You know, there have been this talk for a few sessions about gonna self-insurance plans and getting out of the bidding process. Are there any proposals that you're hearing of that that might want to go to a self-insurance plan?
Sen. Heckaman: I haven't heard of that right now this session. It hasn't come across my desk. But that doesn't mean it's not out there. We're close to the same number of bills we had last session. We're about maybe 50 under total. And being 50 under that means we've got almost 900 bills out there again, 800 to some. So just because I haven't seen it doesn't mean it's not out there.
Dave: You make a good point though. You're dealing with 900 bills in a session that lasts only 80 days. You have a lot of work to do.
Sen. Heckaman: Yep. You know, our legislators work hard, their noses to the grindstone when they're here. I think especially the new legislators find it overwhelming because of committee work, they have bills to introduce, they speak on the floor, they listen to all this information, and the comment of drinking by the fire hose isn't far from it for the new legislators but also for us that have been back here for years.
Dave: I wanted to ask about this. Do you expect any changes in procedures in the upcoming sessions? First you've got people who can meet remotely. And I've actually heard some whispering among some people, lobbyists mostly. So the legislature probably will eventually go to where a committee chairman can kill a bill. And that doesn't happen in North Dakota. North Dakota is one of the only states, maybe the only state, where bills get a vote on the floor unless they're withdrawn. Do you think there's any appetite to change the procedure at all?
Sen. Heckaman: Not that I've heard. I think we value the process that we have here in North Dakota that every bill gets a hearing and every bill gets a vote out of committee and it also gets a vote on the floor. And I think that that's important because it's connecting to the issues so we can all understand what's being introduced, we can all have a voice in the hearing process, and we all have a vote on the floor. I know there's times when you vote on the floor that you'd like to have that yellow button instead of a red or green button. And that's already happened this session. But we need to make a decision and those decisions are important for our people. I don't expect that to change in North Dakota. Even if we go virtually, we've had a really good success with the virtual platform right now. We've even had a remote chairing of a committee and appropriations and that went really well. So I think that the opportunity for the public to participate right now is bigger than it's ever been before.
Dave: I've heard that a lot. It's that the public can appear on Zoom or send in testimony electronically. They don't have to drive to Bismarck and that's been a plus.
Sen. Heckaman: It really has. You know, one of the issues is you sorta have to practice a little bit and get used to that platform and used to how to connect with it. There's also a little bit of a learning curve that you have to do to submit testimony online. But I think that's been really successful too. And we've got some great staff. We've got great clerks and interns in all committees. And I took testimony to one committee today. I didn't have it submitted online and they scan it right away and get it submitted online immediately. So those are things that the online platform, that legislative council IT staff, have worked on and developed and are executing. It is really superior to anything I've seen before.
Dave: Let me ask you about a proposal that was floated to add to the legislative wing to build a three-story building, add it to the legislative wing so legislators could have some offices, so some committee rooms could be over there. I know that's being floated by a West Fargo Republican legislator. Have you looked at that bill at all and what do you think?
Sen. Heckaman: I haven't looked at that, Dave, but I know in the past that one of the earliest sessions that I served down here, I worked with Senator Aaron Krauter and we had a proposal to do a capitol complex here with offices here for agencies and then also some additional recommendations for legislature. Right now we have utilized empty space in the capitol for offices, for legislators, and I think what I see in the Senate that not many of them are utilizing that, maybe more people in the house are because it's a little bit closer over there, more people over there, and some legislators like that social distancing when they're not in committee. And I know that probably a little bit more use out of the House and at the Senate right now.
Dave: Given that and given the fact that there is space available in the Capitol and the governor talked about maybe having more people continue to work remotely from home even after the pandemic is over, do you expect to see some more of that in North Dakota where state employees will be given the opportunity to work from home more and maybe they'll cut down on some of the rental space around Bismarck?
Sen. Heckaman: That's a topic that we covered in appropriations because there's a new proposal by the governor to have every agency who's in the Capitol tower pay rent for the footprint that they have in the tower, for the office space that they have. And as a result of that, they would pay rent, the basis I think for that that I understand from his staff is that he believes that they would make that footprint smaller and maybe bring people from the rental areas in Bismarck into the Capitol. Right now Senate appropriations is removing that rent option right now. So we're back and I think it's gonna be a study. I think we need to look at that like I did several sessions ago. What are the options out there and what's best? I know that listening to some of the department heads and some of the agency heads, some of them really like to have their staff face-to-face here in the building and to connect that way. Others know that they have staff that do a variety of paperwork, filing information, taking in information and documents, and their work can't be done from home. And so right now it's basically up to the agency and the individual departments on how they're handling that. But I think that study out there will reveal some more information for us. We're spending a lot on rent out in the Bismarck-Mandan area. And I understand that it sure is necessary for some people. That's how they make their living. Is renting out real estate. But I also understand that I think people working together in one area, common area while social distancing, provides a little bit more connectedness in some ways.
Dave: I would be remiss if I didn't ask you about K-12 funding because I'll be honest with you, I'm not exactly sure where the bill is. I don't know if the House has it or you have at first.
Sen. Heckaman: No, we don't have it right now.
Dave: Okay, so the house has it. And when the governor proposed that he proposed flat funding on a per pupil payment basis and school officials are already saying flat funding is actually a cut because it doesn't take into account inflation or other costs, I've heard some people saying they're finding some ways or they're gonna try to find some ways to raise that per pupil payment. Have you looked at the issue?
Sen. Heckaman: No, we've looked at it before session. Right now we've been focused on the higher education budget in the Senate appropriations, but in my conversations with people connected with K-12, we know that every year, like you talked about inflation, it's two to 3%, is what their budget is going to have to increase. That money has to come from someplace. If it doesn't come from the state, it comes from the taxpayer in your local community by increasing your property taxes and the mill levies. So some somebody has to pay for that. It gets to the point where a lot of those, a lot of their costs are salaries. And you can't shut off the lights, you can't cut there, you can't cut out the food, you know, you have to have transportation. So some of those things that are fixed costs, they can't adjust and decrease. And it's my hope that when we get the bill over here in the Senate that we can find those dollars that are available. I understand there's going to be a little bit more coming out of the common schools trust fund again according from information from the department of public instruction. And that would be helpful. But as far as other sources right now, we're just waiting until March when we should see the next budget revenue and forecast from Moody's and from IHS market.
Dave: In the few seconds we have left, how are you confident about what that March forecast is gonna look like?
Sen. Heckaman: You know, it all depends. I'm hearing from the ag community that commodity prices are up. That's good for the state of North Dakota. I'm hearing that right now, oil prices are up a little. That's good for the economy and the state of North Dakota with the income that we get from the oil extraction and production taxes. But I'm also hearing from people that that increase in oil prices is biting at the pump. So I mean, there's two sides to every story. And we had a long-term long-range forecast from IHS market and I don't think anybody anticipates us getting back to normal, whatever that means right now until maybe in 23, 24. But I think we're making gains, you know. We're doing the best that we can. We've got a lot of initiatives in our higher education system with workforce training that's helping keeping people in North Dakota and training people or cross-training people for different jobs in the industry that they're at. And that helps keep people in our states. So our higher education institutions are doing great job with career and tech training right now.
Dave: Great. Senator Heckaman, thank you very much for taking the time today.
Sen. Heckaman: I'm happy to be here always with you. So enjoyed visiting with you today. Thank you.
Dave: Our guest, Senator Joan Heckaman of New Rockford, she's a Democrat, and is the Senate minority leader. For Prairie Public, I'm Dave Thompson.