North Dakota Democrats demanding a special session of the Legislature has become something of an election year tradition in North Dakota.
At the end of February in 2014 the Democrats asked Governor Jack Dalrymple to convene a special session of the Legislature to increase state spending. At the time Democrats argued that the state hadn’t been spending enough to address needs created by the oil boom.
Now, at roughly the same spot in the 2016 election cycle, Democrats are again asking for a special session. This time to address spending cuts.
And by “address spending cuts” I mean the Democrats want to water down the already modest allotments Governor Jack Dalrymple ordered back in February:
Democratic leaders sent a letter to Gov. Jack Dalrymple on Tuesday urging him to call a special session of the Legislature to restore about $50 million in across-the-board budget cuts made in February to offset a projected $1.07 billion budget shortfall.
“The purpose is to more strategically and pragmatically respond to the state’s budget shortfall, rather than just abiding by across-the-board cuts that in some cases make little sense and in many cases fall on those who are least able to bear the cost,” Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider said.
The plan from Democratic-NPL legislative leaders would leave in place about 80 percent of the budget cuts that were made as part of a 4.05 percent allotment ordered by Dalrymple on Feb. 1 for most state agencies. The cuts were triggered by a revised revenue forecast that projected a $1.07 billion shortfall compared with the forecast lawmakers used to set the 2015-17 budget, mainly due to plunging oil and farm commodity prices.
Of the $50 million that Democrats propose to restore, nearly $39 million would go to the Department of Human Services, which had to slash $54 million from its general fund budget. A bill draft would undo cuts to behavioral health services, child care assistance grants, inflationary increases and Medicaid fee schedules.
Republicans are vulnerable on the spending issue, I think. There is a real sense among voters – something gubernatorial candidate Doug Burgum is currently trying to tape into – that Republicans got too carried away with spending.
But instead of capitalizing on that discontent, instead Democrats blast Republicans for cutting too much. Which is ridiculous because if we put the allotments ordered by Dalrymple into the context of the state’s budget growth we can see that the reductions are really quit tiny:
When Senator Schneider talks about targeted cuts being better than across-the-board reductions, he’s not wrong. It usually is better to have lawmakers review the budget and prioritize spending reductions as opposed to mandating that each area of the budget hit a specific percentage cut.
That said, given the rapid growth in state spending over the last several bienniums, it’s hard to imagine that any part of our state budget was already so lean that it couldn’t stand a small 4.04 percent reduction.
Plus, the regular legislative session is just months away in January. Better to let the 65th Legislative Assembly, staffed by recently elected lawmakers, make these tough budget decisions instead of a lame duck governor and the lame duck 64th Legislative Assembly.
What Democrats want here is less an opportunity to solve budget problems than a campaign talking point.