Rep. Karla Rose Hanson (D-Fargo) discusses the Democratic priorities for the 2021 Legislature, bonding, family leave and redistricting, among other subjects.
Watch a video of the conversation on our YouTube channel.
Dave Thompson: This is North Dakota Legislative Review on Prairie Public. I'm Dave Thompson, thanks for joining us. We're on our radio platform and also all our digital platforms. And joining us on those platforms today, Fargo state representative, Karla Rose Hanson who is a Democrat from Fargo. Representative Hanson, thank you very much for being here.
Representative Karla Rose Hanson: Thanks for having me, Dave.
Dave: There are a lot of things going on as we're getting toward what they call the third period of a hockey game, a three-period hockey game being a session. How do you think, from your perspective, the session has gone so far?
Rep. Hanson: Well Dave, it's certainly been a session for the history books. I think we can all agree on that one. It's been a, definitely a mixed bag from my perspective. Obviously we have a lot of bills that we're happy to see making progress. From the Dem-NPL caucus perspective, our big priorities are around education, public employees, infrastructure, healthcare. They're really shared priorities across a lot of different legislators here. But there's also some bills that we find have been a distraction, maybe divisive. And so that's been unfortunate. And then some missed opportunities too, with this legislative session, things that our caucus thought were good for North Dakotans but unfortunately didn't make it all the way across the finish line.
Dave: One of those bills probably was turned into a study and that was the paid family leave bill. And I think your name was on that.
Rep. Hanson: That's right. I was the main sponsor of a paid family leave bill, again, this session. We were really happy with what the policy was originally. It would have allowed North Dakotans the option of paying into a fund that was facilitated by the state. And so the employer and the employee, or just one of those parties, could pay into this fund and then pull from the fund if they should ever have an eligible event. And so for example, that might be having a baby or caring for your spouse or an elderly parent if they should have an illness or an accident, rather than going and having unpaid leave during those rare but, you know, really important times of your life. And it would have given those families some financial security during those moments of life, but still been an option for all people to participate in if they wanted to. So we were really happy with the original version of the policy. It was turned into a study in the House and then passed in the House. It crossed over to the Senate and unfortunately the Senate didn't agree with the House and it didn't quite pass. It was short by two or three votes. So we'll keep looking at this policy, we think it's really important to a lot of North Dakotans so we'll keep on having those conversations.
Dave: You also mentioned education funding. Let me run something past you you probably have heard, that the House wanted to go with the governor's recommendation, flat funding in the per pupil payment formula. The Senate now has a bill that would go one and one, 1% the first year, 1% the second year. Where do you come down on it?
Rep. Hanson: The D-NPL caucus absolutely favors the Senate version. In fact, we would like to see even a little bit more. As we know, costs don't stay flat year over year. Our school districts are always faced with a growing set of needs. Some of that is around the behavioral health and wellness of students, that's been an area of growing need over the years. We also have to keep in mind the need to recruit and retain our teacher workforce. And that's really important, especially after the stressful year that our teachers have endured in having to adjust to maybe hybrid learning or remote learning in a lot of cases. And so we think that at least the Senate proposal of a 1% and 1% increase on the per pupil funding would better enable the school districts to meet that growing set of needs without either passing down that burden onto local property tax payers, who might have to make up the difference if the state doesn't come through on that, or just have those needs go unmet.
Dave: And hanging over this also is the coronavirus relief funds. There's special money that has gone to schools, it's called the ESSER fund. There seems to be some feeling among legislators that, well, they could just use the ESSER fund to do this and we don't have to raise it one and one. And there are others who say, well, there's a little clause in the ESSER thing about, you know, cost to continue, maintenance of effort. How is that all going to play together, do you think?
Rep. Hanson: I think as we learn more about the federal funding and the different strings that are attached to that, or you know, contingencies, we can make those decisions. I share those concerns about making sure that the money from the general fund is sustainable into future bienniums regardless of the federal funds because we don't want to be put in a position to where we have to take a step back on the per pupil payment, for example. We want to make sure that that is sustainable for our school districts.
Dave: And again, the legislature is going to be pretty involved in looking at spending some of this money. But in the case of ESSER, that goes directly to school districts and the state really doesn't have much of a say in that, correct?
Rep. Hanson: Right, and so, you know, some of those dollars could be spent on one-time projects. And I think helping students catch up, if there was some shortfalls in learning over this past year. So one-time spending and looking at shortfalls in learning might be potential uses of that money.
Dave: I think one thing that Covid has taught all of us is that things are not really normal. And yes, you had hybrid learning, you had online learning. But sometimes children don't learn that well when it's just staring at a computer. There has to be some kind of interaction in there. So students, and there's some studies that I think you mentioned that students may need to do some catch-up. So I think there are a bunch of things that are being proposed as options for school districts to do, including summer school, or maybe cutting back on vacation time or a longer school year.
Rep. Hanson: That's right. And I'm glad that they're having a rich discussion about all those different options and it might look different for different kids as well.
Dave: You also talked about some other distractions and I have to ask you about a bill that was voted on this week. You're on judiciary, correct?
Rep. Hanson: I am, I serve on judiciary.
Dave: And so this came out of judiciary, I believe, and it had to do with the 10 commandments bill, correct?
Rep. Hanson: That's right. Yeah. So we, oh, go ahead.
Dave: I was just going to say go ahead and explain that bill, what happened?
Rep. Hanson: Right, so the original bill would have allowed school districts to post the 10 commandments in their school buildings. There are some constitutional concerns with this. So 41 years ago, the US Supreme Court ruled that there can't be school-sponsored displays of religion. That violates the establishment clause of the first amendment of the US Constitution. And so schools have to be really careful about this. Some cases that have since gone in front of the Supreme Court may say that it's okay depending on the context of it. And so the judiciary committee amended the bill to say that it's okay to display the 10 commandments if it's in a display with other historical documents. Not religious documents, but historical documents. I maintained, during the floor speech when we voted on it yesterday, I maintained that this still presents constitutional concerns because the case that was being cited that said as long as it's being put in a context of other historical documents, then it's okay. That was from a Texas case that dealt with a monument that had a 40-year history. And obviously any school district that would display a document in their hallway or in their classroom for the 10 commandments, that would have no such history, that would not have a 40-year history as context. And so it still presented some constitutional concerns, not just in my point of view, but you know, several legal scholars agree with that perspective. But it still passed the House. Because the House amended it, there's the potential it might go to conference committee and then after that, you know, we'll see where it goes.
Dave: That's always going to be interesting, what happens when a bill gets into a conference committee? In this case, if the Senate decides, "Oh, no, we don't like that amendment so we're going to send it to a conference committee," all bets are off.
Rep. Hanson: That's right. We're now in the phase of the legislative session where we are moving more into conference committees where we can resolve the differences between a version that the Senate passed and the version that the House passed. And a lot of times you can come up with a nice compromise. I think that is one of the really wonderful things about the legislative process is, you know, you do listen to all sides of an issue and sometimes you are able to find a happy middle ground. And then there's some issues that might be still unconstitutional no matter what words are put in there so we'll see what happens on that.
Dave: So your bet is if it passes like it is, North Dakota could face a court challenge.
Rep. Hanson: I think they could face a court challenge if a school implemented it and displayed it. The bill is permissive for the school districts, not mandatory, but if a school district chose to go ahead and make a display of the 10 commandments with other historical documents, they do face that risk. And that was one of the concerns I expressed on the floor, is that school districts would be facing a lawsuit and that requires taxpayer dollars to defend. And I just don't think that's a good use of taxpayer dollars. I'd rather put that money to other use in our schools.
Dave: I want to go back just a little bit on something you said about, you know, how the process has worked out. This is a much more open process in many ways. The committee rooms are all wired. You can log on, you can actually watch a committee in action. You can testify remotely. Or, these things are going to be available during conference committees as well. So it has, in some respects the Covid pandemic has caused the process to be opened up a little bit.
Rep. Hanson: Absolutely, it's been a silver lining of the pandemic, the ability to use some of the earlier federal relief dollars that the legislature received to, like you said, wire these rooms so that people can listen and be more engaged in the process has been really wonderful as part of the process. I think it's better for everyone when more citizens understand what their government is doing on their behalf and to understand the details of different policies or budgets that are being considered. I had a constituent, for example, wanted to testify on a bill, and instead of driving for three hours from Fargo to Bismarck to testify for literally five minutes and then drive three hours back home, you know, he was able to beam in electronically and share his powerful story. And it was, it felt the same. It felt the same as if he were in the room. And so I value those efficiencies as well.
Dave: And that genie is out of the bottle. I don't think we're going to go back to the way it was, where you had to be in person.
Rep. Hanson: Yeah. I hope not.
Dave: The other thing that has been interesting about this session, I just wanted to get your comment on this, is that the halls of the capitol right now are emptier than they have been in other sessions. And that's Covid protocols. That's people going online, watching it that way. Now we're starting to see students come back. I saw a couple of classes come through and watch some of the floor sessions. It's getting back to normal. Do you think that will become more normal in subsequent years?
Rep. Hanson: I sure hope that we start to see more activity in the capitol halls in the future legislative sessions. Maybe not here in these final few weeks, but I really hope in the next couple of years. You know, it's wonderful when the students come in and take a tour of the building and watch a floor session or come into a committee hearing room to watch the process up close. It's really fun to have them sit with you on the floor and, you know, you can let them push the buttons and you can explain in a little more detail what you're doing. But on the other hand, you know, you can also think about how the technology can enable a class to actually follow a bill from end to end right now. They can watch, they can decide that they want to track, you know, a specific bill number, and they can watch it be introduced in one chamber and track every step of the way throughout the several-month process rather than seeing just one sliver of the process on the one day that they meet. So definitely both aspects are good and valuable but I do hope we have more visitors again in the future.
Dave: I'd like to go to the bonding bill because that seems to be one of the overarching issues of this session. There's an appetite, especially in the Senate, to do some bonding, a little bit more resistance in the House. Now, just to say that one thing that's agreed on is to pay off the FM diversion. That apparently has pretty much universal agreement between the House and Senate, at least with leadership. There are some other things that are being added to the House version of the bill in the Senate. And that's going to be probably a very big debate that you'll probably have again coming up in the next few weeks.
Rep. Hanson: That's right. I think bonding is definitely one of the major topics of discussion during this legislative session. And the Dem-NPL caucus is really glad that it's become that big of a discussion topic. You might remember that Senator Tim Mathern brought forward a proposal related to bonding quite a while ago. It's been an idea that we've advocated for for a long time. It's a really good time to be having this conversation with the historically low interest rates. You know, the legislature has paid in cash for a lot of these major projects in the past. So it just makes sense to take advantage of these low interest rates so that we can move forward in an affordable way to do not just the roads and the bridges, but the water projects, like you mentioned, the FM diversion, the Minot flood control project. And perhaps, like you said, some additional projects if the Senate is successful in amending it, like career and technical education centers, for example. There is certainly some appetite for that in the Fargo area. So we're hopeful. We'll see where it heads. We do want to be a little cautious too about some of the things that might get added to these types of bills at the expense of other needs. So while we are in favor of bonding and want to see a lot of these things move forward, we also want to make sure that we're balancing with some of the other priorities that the state has like raises for teachers like we talked about, raises for public employees. It would be unfortunate to hear that we don't have enough money for those important priorities, but we do have money for maybe tax breaks for certain industries. So we want to make sure that we're continuing to have a balance of priorities.
Dave: Some of the items in the bonding bill, as would be coming over from the Senate when the Senate votes, are meant to be placeholders, at least that's what Senator Warner says. $250 million for this renewable fuels or not necessarily renewable fuels fund because it looks like that may be more toward making fossil fuels a bit more environmentally friendly, but that's a placeholder. Also for CTE, the career and technical education, that could be money that could be coming from Covid relief.
Rep. Hanson: Right, as the legislature learns more about the rules for the federal Covid relief dollars, the federal rescue plan that the US Treasury will explain what we can and can't spend that money on, we'll be able to potentially use that for other purposes in the state, rather than using our general fund dollars. So we're very much looking forward to hearing what those guidelines are so that we can finalize our budgets. But meanwhile, the placeholders might be necessary.
Dave: Are you confident that that information's going to come in before you leave town?
Rep. Hanson: Dave, if there's one thing I've learned, is never to make predictions. So I wouldn't say confident is a word I'd use, but hopeful.
Dave: That, of course, that leads into the fact that you're coming back probably in December for a redistricting session. I'll get into that subject in just a moment but maybe some of these bonding decisions or decisions about spending Covid money might have to be delayed until the December legislative session.
Rep. Hanson: Yes, it's possible. One thing that we learned during the last rounds of federal relief dollars is that I think the people of North Dakota would like to see all of their representatives weigh in on how this money is spent. The previous process was that the emergency commission really determined how this money would be divided up. And that's a very small group and doesn't include any members of the Dem-NPL caucus, I will note. And then the budget section, which is just a subset of the legislature, would give an up or down vote on those proposals, but we wouldn't be able to amend. We wouldn't be able to bring forward different ideas. And so having a little bit more transparent process where the people of North Dakota could listen in, like we have been throughout the last couple months on all the other budgets and policies. This is a big chunk of money. I think they would like to know the discussion around how that is to be spent and then to have every legislator be able to cast a vote would be important to see.
Dave: And that's the process that probably will unfold this year whether it be in your regular session or in the special session for redistricting.
Rep. Hanson: Yes, that's my hope.
Dave: Speaking of redistricting, that's going to be a huge concern coming in in December because A, the census numbers are going to be late. It looks like the end of September for the census numbers. You'll finally get the numbers, there are going to be some hearings around the state about potential plans for redistricting, and then you'll meet again in December. What I'm hearing from some legislators is 47 may not be the right number. Right now you're at 47 districts, maybe go to 48 or 49. No matter what happens, Fargo's probably going to gain a district or two, Bismarck is going to be gaining a district or two and maybe some of these rural districts and they're concerned about the size, well, they might be growing too. I'm just getting to get what your perspective would be. Would you like to stay at 47 or do you think moving to another number might be good?
Rep. Hanson: Well, on the topic of redistricting, I'm definitely open to the debate. So looking forward to hearing, you know, what the pros and cons of each might be. I definitely have, I definitely sympathize with my colleagues who represent rural districts that already span the size of multiple counties. I think that would be, it'd be a really hard job, you know, to represent the diverse needs of multiple counties. So to have those grow even bigger possibly, that would be really challenging. So I think that's an important consideration is the needs of our rural districts not to get too big. So, and if that number ends up being 48 or 49, you know, I'll definitely be listening for the arguments on both sides and I'm looking forward to that debate. I think in my particular district I represent a pretty established neighborhood, you know, unlike maybe South Fargo or West Fargo, which has had a lot of new developments, you know, new housing, new apartments, and a lot of growth that way, I think North Fargo tends to be pretty stable. So we'll kind of see how it all shakes out with all the different boundary lines.
Dave: Now, the Dem-NPL has been on record, I think I'm correct in saying that, that they would prefer to have redistricting turned over to a non-partisan outside committee instead of having it done by the legislature, correct?
Rep. Hanson: That's right. The Dem-NPL caucus does feel that an independent redistricting committee would be the best approach. It would be the most fair. We don't think it's right that a politician should pick his or her voters. So I think that gets into the dangers of gerrymandering and having districts that are specifically designed to put certain voters in place to ensure certain people are elected. And I think an independent redistricting committee would have been a better approach but I don't think that's the approach that we'll be going with this year. So what we're hoping for now is just that we have the fairest approach possible to have, I think, recommendations for this type of work. 'Cause usually, you know, that they're sensible in the lines that are drawn, like they're compact. They're not, you know, you don't have, there's a joke around other states that might have very severely gerrymandered districts that have very weird shapes, like little, you know, skinny parts just to get certain neighborhoods included. And I don't think that's necessary or appropriate.
Dave: So do you think trust would verify that, perhaps?
Rep. Hanson: That's right.
Dave: How many Democrats are going to be on that committee, do you know?
Rep. Hanson: You know, I haven't been following it very closely, but maybe two, maybe more. I haven't been following it very closely.
Dave: Okay. But that process is going to unfold. But again, we're a few months away from that based on the fact that census numbers have been delayed.
Rep. Hanson: That's right.
Dave: I've been noticing that there were a bunch of voting bills that have been introduced but a lot of them seem to have failed. What's your sense about what's going on in that and that whole thing about doing some changes to voting rights in North Dakota?
Rep. Hanson: That's right. During this legislative session we saw what might have been a record number of bills related to voting rights, I think 44 was one number I heard, between the two chambers. Many of them, from my perspective, were not good for North Dakota voters. They were really putting too many restrictions on voting and unnecessarily so. We don't have a problem with voting in North Dakota in the sense of widespread fraud or unauthorized uses of absentee voting or early voting or anything like that. So some of these proposals were trying to rein in a person's ability to vote absentee or vote early. And I was happy that some of the most severe of these or most extreme of these haven't been successful so far. And in fact, we passed a bill the other day that allows our county auditors to start the process of dealing with all the envelopes and papers related to absentee voting a little bit earlier because the current law was pretty restrictive in how they were able to deal with that and it's pretty paper-intensive. And so giving them a few more days to start that process allows us as voters to get our results a little bit earlier on Election Day. And I'm sure the news media likes that as well because then we can we can learn by about 10 o'clock at night what the final results are.
Rep. Hanson: But it just helps with their workflow and their workload to kind of spread that out over a few more days so I was happy that that passed.
Dave: I know there's concerns about absentee voting but a lot of those concerns have gone away now. There are probably still a few bills floating out there but a lot of the more severe bills, if you want to put it that way, are are gone now.
Rep. Hanson: Yes.
Dave: All right. What do you think? What is going to be another issue that might hang up the session, might cause the session to go a little longer than the 70 days they'd like to get done in?
Rep. Hanson: Sure, well, I think we already talked about bonding. I think that'll definitely be one of the major conversations in the last week or two. You know, some of the major budget bills that the legislature considers during the final weeks might also be a hangup as we get toward the end. Some of the last budget bills that we tend to deal with are the Department of Human Services. It's really a large budget bill. It deals with everything from the reimbursements that we give to long-term care facilities, like nursing homes, as well as the reimbursements to hospitals for Medicaid and Medicaid expansion. So we want to make sure that we're doing a good job with our human services and whether it be those reimbursement rates or the treatment available for behavioral health, for example. So that's a big one. We'll keep a close eye on that one. K through 12 and public employee raises are also things that we keep an eye on. I think public employee raises have been kind of settled a little bit. The Dem-NPL caucus would have liked to see the compensation for our public employees be a little stronger than what things have settled in at, but we are glad to see that we're taking care of people who are at the lower end of the salary range. We really want to make sure that our public employee jobs remain competitive with the private sector because that helps the state recruit and retain talented employees that provide the services that we as citizens rely on every day. So we were happy with that, but we'll keep a close eye on some of these more contentious bills as we near our final weeks.
Dave: Very good, and we have run out of time. Well, thank you very much for being our guest today.
Rep. Hanson: Thank you for having me.
Dave: Our guest, democratic representative Karla Rose Hanson from Fargo. And for Prairie Public, I'm Dave Thompson.