We now know where the final $320 million of CARES Act money will be spent. The six-member Emergency Commission met yesterday to put their stamp of approval on select requests. There will be a lot of good that comes from this federal money as approved. Unfortunately, because of the process, we don’t know why other requests were rejected.

According to the head of the Office of Management and Budget, a total of $445 million in requests were made in this final allotment. With only $320 million remaining in federal dollars, $125 million in other requests had to be turned away. That seems like a rather large decision to be left to six men who meet without public hearings to firmly grasp the weight of the requests for funding before they were turned down.

Because Burgum rejected calls for greater input from the public and many legislators shrunk from their responsibility, we may not get a full understanding ourselves of what was rejected and why. If you read the Governor’s press release announcing the decisions, you can tell it was carefully crafted to try and convince the public there was a lot of input. I’m not convinced.

We know a request by Dem-NPL lawmakers hit the cutting room floor. The $20 million request was for paid sick leave for North Dakota workers. Aside from the obvious partisan reasons, the public should be given a better understanding of why it was not fully vetted by the Commission.

I raise this, because even though there were good things done – which I’ll get to in a minute – we don’t know what other challenges could have been addressed. These are difficult decisions in a tough time. We don’t know because of the backroom dealings without a robust public input period. Nobody who is or has been a legislator will ever convince me this process was the appropriate way to roll out what was equal to 1/4 of the state’s budget.

Below are the items approved by the six-member Commission according to their press release. This list will be sent to the Budget Section where Legislators simply say “yes” or “no” to what was already decided without their input. Undoubtedly, they will say “yes.”

  • $59 million for cities and counties, on top of the $20 million for local public health units, will be paid out as a reimbursement for law enforcement payroll based on each jurisdiction’s number of law enforcement officers and actual payroll costs from March through September
  • $100 million for the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund to restore the trust fund to pre-pandemic levels
  • $96.6 million for the North Dakota Department of Health including nearly $63 million for an enhanced testing campaign covering K-12, the North Dakota University System, additional contact tracing, public awareness and education efforts, private lab contracts and reinforcing the state’s medical cache.
  • $23.3 million for the Office of the Adjutant General for support of statewide testing sites and other expenses.
  • $17.4 million for the North Dakota University System, including $13.6 million for HVAC modifications to improve air quality in campus buildings and $1 million for personal protective equipment, thermometers and other protective supplies.
  • $13.3 million for the Department of Human Services, including $12 million to continue to the Childcare Emergency Operations Grant through December.
  • $5 million for tribal colleges, trade schools and private colleges.
  • $5.2 million for other state agencies, including $2 million through the Department of Agriculture to support food bank programs.

The $1.25 billion received by the state was meant to offset some of the direct impacts brought on by the pandemic. As of now, it needs to be spent by the end of the year. A legislative session is set to begin in January. As we know, the pandemic didn’t just have direct expenses to state and local governments. It also impacted income and expenses of working families. Let’s work towards making sure the legislature keeps their neighbors’ needs in mind when they get back to Bismarck.

Tyler Axness