N.D. – North Dakota lawmakers over the next 1 ½ years could be studying issues of gambling addiction, state employee pay and Health Department management, among myriad other topics.
The 17-member Legislative Management, a panel that guides lawmakers’ work between sessions, meets Wednesday to pick which of 72 optional studies to carry out into late 2022.
The 2021 Legislature already required 12 studies be undertaken. Findings and recommendations from studies could produce bill drafts for the 2023 Legislature.
The Legislature can mandate or request studies be carried out. Some studies result from amended bills in an effort to learn more information about a major topic.
In the 2019-20 interim, 29 committees carried out 47 studies, which produced 31 bills and resolutions, 24 of which the Legislature passed. At least 15 studies produced no recommendations.
Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, who chairs Legislative Management, said the panel might approve about half of the proposed studies, to be carried out by 23-25 committees. The panel will set membership of committees in June.
The panel will pick studies by consensus, Holmberg said. He noted that “sometimes the Legislature passes study resolutions as a way to move forward during the session, so we’ll end up with some that will go on the cutting room floor right away, and then there will be those that we will look at and talk about.”
Holmberg, who has been in the Legislature since 1977, has previously said some interim committees “kind of are a dry hole.” But overall, the interim period is productive, he said.
He pointed to such issues as the higher education budget and electronic land posting as recent legislation that met with little controversy in the 2021 Legislature “in part because of the interim work.”
The panel also will discuss videoconferencing and whether lawmakers can beam in remotely or be required to attend in person in the interim. Legislative leaders last year ramped up videoconference and livestream technology amid the coronavirus pandemic with $2.64 million of federal CARES Act aid.
“The bell has been rung. How do you unring it when it comes to people virtually attending?” Holmberg said.
He and House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, prefer in-person attendance. In-person meetings have more discussion and involvement, Holmberg said.
Boschee said that a hybrid option would be beneficial for lawmakers who must tend to professional or family commitments. He said he hopes lawmakers “get back to using the interim as a tool to be better prepared for the next session.” In his view, some interim committee chairs were not as productive as they could have been.
Lawmakers’ compensation and expense reimbursements for attending interim committee meetings from July 2019 through December 2020 were $613,403.
Capitol space needs
One optional study proposes a look at space needs in the Capitol, employee work location policies, state agency leases and rental payments.
Last year, more than 7,200 of 8,500 state employees were working remotely amid the pandemic. Some shared office space on a rotating schedule. It’s unclear how many continue to telework; remote work options vary by state agency, but it appears teleworking has diminished.
North Dakota’s Information Technology Department has allowed most of its employees to work from home, letting an 85,000-square-foot rented office in Bismarck go mostly unused.
State Facilities Management Division Director John Boyle said about 70% of people usually come to work every day on the Capitol grounds, where 1,800 people work.
Holmberg said “it’s important we take a look at the direction we’re going and space needs” across the state government.
“I think the key is, is the service being provided, because that’s why they’re hired, that’s why people are there, is to provide service to North Dakotans,” he said.