For the next year and a half, lawmakers will be tasked with studying issues and consider devising a plan to address them. The work in the interim sets the groundwork for future legislatures but is often overlooked. Lawmakers need to be visionary and not simply reactionary. As these studies are selected, grow, and evolve over the interim, here are a few areas we think need attention aside from the mandated studies.
This is required to be done. All eyes will be on the committee tasked with drawing new district lines. Continued growth in the metro areas will likely lead to more representation and districts in places like the Fargo metro area and Bismarck-Mandan. What will it mean for our rural neighbors? How many miles will be necessary for more remote areas to capture the required population size? Will there be a discussion of adding a district or two to the current forty-seven?
Thankfully, this process will play out in a more transparent way than originally desired by legislative leaders. The original bill exempted certain aspects of this process from public records. Because of continued pressure from the public, local media, and groups like North Dakota Voters First led by Rick Gion, the exemption was removed.
Years of mandated savings have grown into a sizable opportunity for ND. Lawmakers should consider ways to use this fund to invest in future opportunities. The narrowed bonding bill in 2021 was a decent start. This should not be used to subsidize what lawmakers should already be funding through general fund dollars. I don’t believe voters created the fund to simply fund basic government operations. There is an awful lot of talk about diversifying our economy. Where can this fund assist in those efforts?
There is a workforce shortage in ND. No, it isn’t simply because of enhanced unemployment benefits made necessary because of a pandemic. Nor is it people being lazy. There are deeper challenges preventing people from entering the workforce. Lack of access to affordable childcare. Location of those jobs. Skilled training opportunities. What, if anything, can be done to address some of these issues as a state?
Unfortunately, we missed an opportunity. For no reason other than political, the legislature defeated a chance to study the impacts a voluntary paid family leave program would have on the workforce. It is said business lobbyists were undertook the effort to defeat this study below the radar. Now, they scream about people not entering the workforce? Those lobbyists should take a moment in the mirror and wonder what they can do if they claim there is no need for a voluntary government program. Put their money where their mouth is. We’re not going to hold our breath.
Can the state do better in helping rural development? Infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and water projects have been put on hold because of the current funding model used in Bismarck. The trickle down approach in the Prairie Dog Initiative dried up before townships received their promised dollars. It is time to reevaluate how those necessary improvements are funded so that it is more consistent. The federal government won’t be there to bailout the state again with billions of dollars in pandemic money. At the very least, rural ND should move up the priority chain of the current funding model.
Last interim lawmakers looked at food supply challenges in rural ND. Small town grocery stores were closing at an alarming rate. With the pandemic changing our purchasing habits, more people looked for local supply to stock their freezer, fridge, pantry. Capacity to accomplish this on main street may be something to consider with state incentives or partnerships.
Recruitment and retention of rural first responders is a growing concern. These volunteers take time away from their employment and family to fulfill basic government functions. Should they need to continue to rely on fish fries and raffles to fund their necessary operations? To aid in recruitment and retention, should the state provide some sort of benefit to these volunteers beyond the specialized license plate approved by voters? What about the state’s health insurance plan as a benefit of first responders?
Prescription drug costs are another area we need to grapple with. Proposals to deal with some of this in the last session were turned away. Some of the proposals mirrored much of what former US Senator Byron Dorgan had talked about while he was serving the state. The continued stalemate shows the power of Big Pharma.
Lastly, the legislature needs to continue to study what should happen if the US Supreme Court overturns the ACA. ND Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem entered the state into the lawsuit. Our Republican federal delegation and many of their Republican counterparts in the ND Legislature have cheered on the lawsuit. Sadly, Cramer has admitted he has no clue what will happen if the ACA is thrown out. Neither does must of the Legislature. They better figure it out and be prepared for the loss in coverage and the need to fulfill Medicaid Expansion dollars benefiting rural hospitals.
Prioritize the State’s Potential
There are more issues that need attention beyond the above mentioned. However, addressing some of the above will provide an even more solid foundation to continue the state’s growth throughout the state. Lawmakers who take their role seriously need to prioritize the state’s potential during this time. Those who skip on their duties need to be called out. Collectively they cannot allow the distractions from the vocal fringe of the NDGOP to get in the way of their work. ND has the resources. Do we have the political will and foresight to put it to work?