This week, we talk with Sen. Jerry Klein (R-Fessenden), the assistant Senate Majority Leader. We'll discuss the session so far, the bonding bill, pending COVID relief money, and redistricting.
Watch a video of the conversation on our YouTube channel.
Dave Thompson: This is Legislative Review on Prairie Public. We're on our radio service and we're also on our digital platforms. Today our guest is Senator Jerry Klein of Fessenden. He's a Republican. He's the assistant Senate majority leader, and also chairman of Senate Industry Business Labor. Have I got that correct?
Senator Jerry Klein: You got it right, Dave.
Dave: Well, thank you for being here, Senator. Appreciate it.
Sen. Jerry Klein: Well, and thank you. Thank you very much for the invitation. I've always appreciated the opportunities to visit with you and the interviews that we've had are certainly, you've always been kind and I very much appreciate it.
Dave: It's all about information. That's what this is all about. There's one big thing that's happened now and I'm sure there's a lot of unknowns yet, and that's the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill that was passed by the Congress and money is coming to North Dakota. First off, do we know yet how much money might be coming to North Dakota?
Sen. Jerry Klein: You know, Dave there those numbers are still kind of balls in the air. And it would seem that we may be in the range of eight to $900 million, maybe even a billion dollars. But we aren't exactly sure what that number is. I know it was just signed by the president. We also know that there's gonna be an additional chunk of money that may come to the schools, which would be independent of what we're talking about. So the strings have not been necessarily totally attached yet. I know we were certainly hoping for some money to possibly shore up like the PERS retirement program. And certainly that's one of the needs in our state, which could take and would take and would certainly take it off our plates for a while. The fact that our PERS program is somewhat underfunded and at this rate, won't be funded fully till the year, I don't know 2090 maybe. It's a long time out and yet the idea was potentially to use some of that money to merge that, bill that up and make that fun whole. So we're still looking. I was chatting with both the leader and the appropriations chairman. They're looking in to see what can we use. Generally, you can't use it to supplant other dollars and how will it best be used in North Dakota for a one-time spending, because, once again, we don't wanna start a program with this. We just want to do the best we can to help the people of the state in sort of a one-time shot at this.
Dave: And I understand that cities and counties are gonna receive a part of that money too. You're understanding as well?
Sen. Jerry Klein: It's my understanding. The comment was made, prairie dog is not dead and that certainly and you're certainly familiar with the Prairie Dog bill. The fact that the buckets because of the price oil are not filling quite as quickly as we had hoped, and we're certainly hoping that there may be some infusion to help those counties, cities. And I don't think there's any township money in there, but potentially we can make that money and infrastructure is so important in our state. It's easy to get behind an infrastructure because we continue to have bridges and other things that need to be done and built. And so it will be very helpful should that money come for the counties.
Dave: Now that now that the bill has passed and you're just waiting for some of the details, the devil's always in the details of course, but with the legislature in session and several days left of the session, can you get things accomplished and get the spending out during this little, the legislative session that you're currently in?
Sen. Jerry Klein: We are certainly absolutely hoping that we can do that with the fact that it's done now and we're moving along, that we can address those things. So yes, it's very positive. So we need to know the details. And of course, next week when we have the Moody's analysis of where our budget is going, where our dollars are going, that's gonna be extremely important so that we can see how the budgeting process is gonna play out. And we're excited about the fact that, some may be excited that the fact that oil is going up other than the folks who are pulling up the pump, but certainly it also provides additional dollars to the state. However, we do have this April 6 deadline that would suggest that when they are gonna make what we believe is a final decision on the dapple, that will trigger what the price of oil may or may not be first for the state of North Dakota and how well are our buckets will fill.
Dave: You talk about a number of balls in the air. That's a major possibility for the oil industry is what might happen to Dakota Access Pipeline.
Sen. Jerry Klein: It is. It's so important and visiting with the folks in the oil industry, we've become very reliant on oil and the price of oil certainly helps generate the initial dollars that fall in those pockets and we also talk about applying for general fund, providing for the resources trust fund, even the legacy fund. As price of oil goes up, the barrel goes up. We enjoy the additional, the 5%, the 5% of gross production, extraction. That all flows down into our main pails and we enjoy that and of course the bottom pail is the Strategic Investment and Infrastructure Fund, which has certainly been a great catch. Has provided a lot of dollars for a lot of infrastructure needs around the state. And that's not quite filling. At this point it even looks like some of the buckets might be filling before the end of the biennium, but once again I think the comment, the devil's in the details, you're right on.
Dave: Now, one of the things that's also hanging in the balance, but not about COVID is the Bonding Bill. It was really introduced at $1.1 billion. There was $1.2 billion from the governor. There was $2 billion from Senator Mathern. The house cut it to $680 million. I've been hearing maybe the Senate might put some things back into it that the house cut. What is your take on that?
Sen. Jerry Klein: Well, Dave I know there has been a lot of discussion. I mean, there are any number of bills dealing with legacy dollars streaming dollars. The Bonding Bill is an attempt to take care of some of our current needs and fund that with which today have a historically low rate of interest and rather than waiting to the future to accomplish some of our major projects. And right now, I believe the water projects have been left in. The Fargo diversion, we're gonna take care of the Mouse River needs. Some of those major projects, we're gonna take care of those and move those along in this Bonding Bill. Now what might need to be injected back in, I'm not sure. Once again, infrastructure needs, but you know, when people, I'm not suggesting there's blood in the water, but everybody early on was looking to see what they can leverage through this Bonding Bill, what they can add on. But yet I think right now we have, it's certainly a reasonable bill now. We are asking for legacy fund earnings to pay the interest on those bonds as we move into the future. And so we're looking at, we've got a 20 year bond, we would get those paid back, but we would have accomplished the infrastructure goals that we had set out and had done it when interest rates were extremely low and that the project costs were still lower 'cause as we go in the future you know as well as I do, inflation, cost of doing business continues to go up and should we get some of these major projects done, would be great for us, great for the state of North Dakota, great for citizens.
Dave: Now, Senator Warner said right away, these are projects, especially diversion, and with the monster of a flood control project. These were projects that you were going to do anyway. You had committed to them, there was gonna be money committed to them. With the FM diversion you pay for it and the project is going to be completed, the way I understand it. So that helps.
Sen. Jerry Klein: And the other thing it does is as the oil money continues to come in, it frees up additional dollars in the resources trust fund that can be used for projects, water quality projects, smaller water districts who are extending water to rural communities, small communities. Without water it's kind of difficult to run your little town. And so we have found that by funding some of these great big chunks and keeping more water in that resources trust fund, we can certainly build out of a lot of water infrastructure in smaller communities in different parts of the state.
Dave: I wanna go back to COVID just for a second because your committee dealt with this liability issue regarding COVID. I'd like you to briefly explain what is going on.
Sen. Jerry Klein: Well, Dave I believe it's House Bill 1175. We ran a lot of numbers through your head in a day or a week or in four months, but is a bill to provide some sort of business liability to not only our business community, but our medical community, not only hospitals, but also long-term care. And the idea being that COVID created a whole different time in our lives when access to your hospital might not have been quite what you expected. There were times when people who got sick were being moved on to somewhere else. There were times when they were transferred from a Bismarck Hospital to potentially a Fargo Hospital. So it's been it's been a difficult time. And what we're doing here is saying, okay, if this was COVID related you're gonna have to cut some slack. This is not a get out of jail free card. If somebody actually was injured in a facility, in a business through no fault of their own and no COVID relationship, that still sticks. There's still a law. It's still gonna provide those people with some sort of recourse. But all we're asking here is that business, if it's COVID related and generally no fault of their own that it wouldn't be included. So that in a nutshell creates an immunity of employer, employee, long-term care resident, somebody who says I think I got COVID standing in line at Target. How are you gonna prove all these things? What we're just trying to do is say, okay, we have lived through a different time. And so a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of proponents, a lot of supporters to that issue and hopefully in the next few days it'll get passed through the Senate
Dave: In a bigger picture, COVID has made many changes in the business community, but also in how you do business the legislature. How are you dealing with the idea that some of this has distance, there's not a lot of people around anymore, at least for this session because of social distancing, masks, et cetera. How are you perceiving things are going?
Sen. Jerry Klein: Well, Dave, as kind of a longtime legislator, and you certainly, as a long time member of the media who's covered legislature, you can feel the almost hush in the building. You don't come down to the hall downstairs in the entryway and see a busloads of students hustling and bustling around. The committee room is limited to maybe six chairs, maybe eight chairs. So rather than having a packed room you're dealing with a small group. But what I have found and what I think has really been interesting is we've had hardly any absenteeism. First of all, we haven't had many sick legislators or senators, in fact. Secondly, and as I mentioned here earlier today, I have noticed we haven't had nearly the outbreaks of flu that we used to have. I mean, it used to be like somebody wound up sick one day, well, needless to say, it just went around the chamber and eventually everybody's coughing, sniffling and blowing their nose. But I don't know if it's the mask, I don't know if it's a social distancing, but we've done a great job to control that. But I think even the bigger thing, and I think the thing that most people, I think have grown to enjoy is the fact that you can click on. And if I wanna watch the Senate IBL committee today and hear or listen to a bill, I can get on my PC and I can be right there. If I wanna get on and I wanna testify, all I have to do is make notice, and I am Zoomed right in just like you and I are talking now, you're on the big screen. You're allowed to ask questions, we're allowed to ask questions, we get testimony, and you can be sitting in your office in Washington DC, or I hope not by the pool in Arizona, but nevertheless, you can be sitting most anywhere in America and have place in North Dakota's legislature and have an opportunity to promote information in North Dakota's legislature. I think it's amazing. You as a legislator considered home, if you're not feeling well, you can be in every committee, you can participate in every committee, you can vote on the Senate floor. It's amazing. I think just kudos to our tech people here in the Capitol, who this was kind of short notice, getting the whole building wired, getting the equipment, because needless to say it was like trying to buy a freezer at Walmart. You couldn't get one. And they were struggling to get this equipment, get it installed. And we have literally gone off with hardly a glitch in this whole system. It's been great. But the masks will be as a mandate to the session during the session on the floor. As of tomorrow, should no one come in contact or be declared COVID we will be making masks optional during the Senate deliberations. So you'll see if you're viewing the Senate during the session, if you're viewing the session, you may see people with no or a lot less masks come Monday. But once again, if we have an outbreak, the leadership can, because of the rule, declare that an issue and have us put the masks back on. So I think this technology has been great. Where other states were hesitant to even go into session, where we were wondering if we were gonna get a group sick and that we wouldn't be able to move on, we have done a remarkable job. We've stayed healthy. People are getting their shots now. I don't know if it's a social distancing, but once again, I think you hit on it. When you come into the building now there is a hush. We used to see round the back of the chamber was constantly lobbyists, students, you had a student sitting next to you, you had an old relative come in and wanna sit by you. We haven't had that. And I don't know, I've always enjoyed, especially with the students having an opportunity to at least have a little chit chat, they get to sit down and they get to hear what we're doing and the deliberation. But all in all, I think we've had a great session and I think we've been able to accomplish what we set out to do, and we'll continue to move forward. And I think we're gonna get this thing done, and we're gonna hope to save about 10 days for redistricting.
Dave: And that brings me to my new question, because you have a map behind you. And of course, redistricting is gonna be a huge issue coming forward. It's delayed because the census numbers probably won't be out until the end of September. And it looks like maybe end of December type of session for redistricting. Is that what your sense is?
Sen. Jerry Klein: Yes. Once again, normally the census information would have been out at the end of April. I served on the 2011 redistricting committee. We started in right out of the chute working on drawing those lines, figuring out where we're gonna find all the people. And because it's not an easy process being able to and trying to figure out ways to draw ourselves in these boxes. It's not that way. I mean, we try to make every attempt to follow county lines, city blocks. But the program that we have these days just amazing because they know exactly where you're living. So every time you move a block into a particular district or a township in a district, you know immediately how many people you've added. What the problem for some of us roll guys is that we need because our state's population is growing, we need to have about another 1700 folks in each one of our districts. Now, if you were excited that your district stayed at 14,250, which was the number we needed last time, that's one thing. But now we're gonna have to scramble for another couple of thousand people, a couple of 1700 people, but nevertheless, that's not easy in rural North Dakota. And then you've seen growth. You've seen growth in Fargo, Bismarck, Williston, McKenzie County. So there is going to be some reshaping. There is going to be some whining and crying and crying in the night because there will be legislators who will be in with their fellow legislators. It's just the way it's gonna go. We foresee maybe two rural districts potentially going away. Their ask is talk of moving back to 49 districts. I don't know that that's gonna happen. We moved to 47 back in 2001. That seems to be something that most folks are gonna try to adhere to. But as a rural legislator we're always concerned about our rural voices and we are getting generationally separated from the soil, so to speak, because most of my early colleagues and one time they lived in Bismarck Emily farm and somewhere out in Stark County, or Arthur. But nevertheless, this is going to be a challenging time. And then the fact that our numbers are coming in late, that committee is gonna have to do just a lot of a yeoman's job to try to be ready. And we are shooting for mid December for having our special session, which when the lines are gonna be drawn, you'll know what district you're in or that you're on your way out. And if you have to bring in too many more, some of us who ran this past year are gonna have to probably run again if they so choose, because it's a complicated process. But nevertheless, as you see, there's a lot of colors on the map. I represent five counties in central part of the state. It's big and it's going to get bigger. So it's gonna be a challenging time for a lot of us.
Dave: Are you going to try to serve on the committee this year?
Sen. Jerry Klein: Well I've been volunteered. Senator Holmberg and I are the remaining two members of the 11 redistricting committee from the Senate. And I believe without asking, I may be on. And we try to establish a group that represents a variety of rural, urban, east, west, north, south, trying to get folks from around the state because they're gonna be representative of their areas. But yes I, I think I may be on that committee.
Dave: Well, I heard that you mentioned Senator Holmberg. He came up with, I thought it was a very good line. He says we generally reflect at the alter of population when you do the district lines, because you have to be within a tolerance, if I remember correctly.
Sen. Jerry Klein: There is a small tolerance. He suggested we maybe even be cannibalizing because us folks who aren't gonna have enough numbers are gonna have to start eating away at our neighbors who have, who may be adjacent to us, but have the meat that we need to sustain our lives. But he does have generally a lot of different, he has great quotable quotes.
Dave: It also is illustrative of the job that you have in front of you. Some may say it's daunting, you've been through it a couple of times. From an outsider's perspective, it doesn't look like it's an easy thing to do, given the fact that you might have to cut into some districts, have some people in different districts, have some people who may have been elected in 2020 may have to run again in 2022.
Sen. Jerry Klein: You're absolutely right. And you've been around, you understand the camaraderie we build amongst our, I mean, we are a family here. We have friends, we sit next to each other, We work in committees pretty diligently for 80 days or 70, hopefully, but we are friends. The daunting part is when you start working on, you got to close your eyes and just try to start, and you work in from the corners because you can't make a Pembina County go into Canada. You start bringing those down until you get to that number. And then that's just gonna be your level. And you maybe have to swat through one of your colleagues homes but yes, that's the daunting task. You don't get a lot of praise for what you've done on the committee. We didn't have to do a whole lot of, we had, I believe three different districts where the legislators ran against each other, both Democrat, Republican. But it's just part of the process. And I think we're all very knowledgeable of that and I think the rural guys, especially this time are, and you know, Dave, we have a majority. And having that big majority and so you have become friends with a lot more folks. Now that I'm friends with my good friends across the aisle, we work together every day but nevertheless there is gonna be some work to be done.
Dave: We just have about a minute left. I wanna get this clear where you stand. You'd like to see it stay at 47, or would you be open to going to 49?
Sen. Jerry Klein: You know, Dave, I think there's some wisdom to going either way, because we have folks who believe 49 will help maintain some rural districts. Some would say, okay, instead of needing 1700 people, we'll need 1500 people. Is that enough to really make a difference? We wanna keep the cost of doing business for those North Dakota taxpayers as low as we can maybe, but maybe not. I think we're gonna have to hear the discussion. We're gonna have to see some numbers. We're gonna have to see how the entire map would shape up. And I think at that point, I guess I hedged on that question. I'm not sure what how I will act yet, but I think 47 has worked out for us pretty well.
Dave: So you'd rather this would be 47 at this point?
Sen. Jerry Klein: I think without listening to, and I haven't heard the debate yet on the additional two, I am going to say that yes, I think I'm gonna stick with the 47 until I can be lobbied into showing me that this would work out and this is certainly, and you know, we don't wanna make these districts so huge that it currently, if we add another 50 miles one way or another, but I think it's important if that helps with that, I think we should take a look. But we know we're gonna need a couple of districts in a couple of the big cities and Western North Dakota. So yes, I think it's gonna be, I think you used the word daunting and I'm gonna say, yes, it's gonna be a daunting task David.
Dave: It is. Senator, thank you very much. We've run out of time. We've got more subjects to talk about, but we run out of time.
Sen. Jerry Klein: Dave, thank you so much. I always appreciate your kind words and your friendship when I see you here in the Capitol, thank you so much.
Dave: And thank you. Senator Jerry Klein from Fessenden is our guest on Legislative Review on Prairie Public.