BISMARCK – The crossover date for the North Dakota State Legislature is coming up on February 24, which means large spending bills will be coming out of both appropriations committees and will be considered on the House and Senate floors. Here’s what the legislators will be considering in the coming days.
So far, the largest request this biennium comes from the Department of Health and Human Services, with an increase of over $1.1 billion in its budget in Senate Bill 2012 and House Bill 1004, a total increase of 25%. Governor Doug Burgum is recommending the DHHS receive an increase of $849 million in SB2012.
Allen Knudson, chief legislative budget analyst, said legislative management does not have a record of past requests and recommendations, but believes the $849 million recommendation is the largest one in history from one agency.
As seen in SB2012, most of the increase recommended by the governor is for the department’s program and policy, with the largest program increase being medical assistance at $528 million.
“Based on the agency’s budget request and the governor’s recommendation, and input from the public, the committee and the legislature will make adjustments either up or down to that base budget,” said Knudson.
The Dakotan sat down with three representatives of the DHHS for clarification on these numbers, who were Chris Jones, commissioner, Arnie Strebe, chief financial officer, and Sara Stolt, deputy commissioner.
Jones said besides the governor’s recommendation for childcare at $75 million, a new state lab at $55 million, and some substantial behavior health initiatives, the legislature was what appropriated such high rates, and it’s a cost to continue going forward.
“I think it’s very important for people to understand, when they ask why the budget is so big, especially some legislators, it’s because they made it that big,” said Jones. “We have come in every session, with a budget that was below what the legislature appropriated. Last session they added $300 million to our budget in the general fund, not federal, over what we asked. The way the medicaid program works, once they say pay this much, they never go backwards. More people enroll, and then exponentially they add more each session, and they can’t figure out why it’s growing.”
“A lot of it is legislative directive,” said Strebe. “We reduced the budget from the previous biennium by 15%, and all those things we reduced were added back in to include additional items that the legislature felt were really needed for the vulnerable citizens of North Dakota.”
“What gets pushed forward is a comparison of our base budget, our last session’s budget, with the governor’s executive budget request, and then the legislature reviews all of that to determine what’s appropriated,” said Stolt.
Jones said because of the Medicaid enrollment, the federal government gave the DHHS more money, and it now has a deficiency of $325 million.
“We knew we would have a deficiency, but the legislature decided, well, don’t put that money where it’s supposed to go, just put it back in the general fund and figure it out later,” said Jones.
Strebe mentioned inflation going up about 14% in the last two years adds to the continued costs.
“We have the inflation going up, but then also, call it post-COVID, there’s been a lot of funds that have come to our organization, and there’s a cliff coming around the corner in regard to where we’re not going to get those federal funds anymore, and yet providers are in some ways used to to the receiving those funds,” Strebe explained.
John Bjorenson, director of legislative council, said the DHHS and Higher Education, the University System, typically have the largest budgets, with the DHHS at a total budget of $4.45 billion and Higher Ed at a total budget of $2.5 billion. He said the Department of Public Instruction and the Corrections are also on the list as some of the largest.
Knudson said he’s not sure if requests from agencies this biennium are a record amount total, because in 2013, due to the oil boom, a large number of requests came in. Bjornson said he believes this is the largest dollar amount of appropriation requests in history.
“We don’t really track that,” said Knudson.
Knudson added that the governor’s total budget of over $18 billion is the largest in history, with the dollar increase most likely being the most, though percentage-wise he’s unsure. Burgum’s budget last biennium was about $15 billion, making his percentage increase 20%.
There is still time for public input, as Bjorenson says the large spending bills will probably start coming to the floor early next week as the appropriations committees are already meeting in the evenings to get through all the spending bills.