The North Dakota Legislature ended its 2011 session Thursday with cheers, applause and song, shortly after lawmakers finished work on a $9.9 billion, two-year budget fattened with road construction, water projects and tax cuts.
Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley, the North Dakota Senate's presiding officer, hit the final gavel at 5:41 p.m. Thursday. Three minutes earlier, House members had officially completed their work after finishing a brief chorus of Auld Lang Syne.
The session lasted 78 days, just short of the 80-day maximum set by the North Dakota Constitution.
GOP Gov. Jack Dalrymple and the Legislature's Republican majority leaders, Fargo Rep. Al Carlson and Bismarck Sen. Bob Stenehjem, hailed the session as historic, praising its spending plans for improving state and local roads in western North Dakota's oil-producing region and its package of reductions in income and property taxes.
It includes almost $371 million to repair state and local roads in North Dakota's oil country, and $100 million worth of grants that local governments affected by oil development may tap for public works improvements and repairs.
Legislators approved $110 million to develop a new water pipeline supply system for northwestern North Dakota, which will be designed to supply the oil industry's unquenchable water needs in the region while building a network that can supply cities and smaller communities.
Lawmakers believe the project can finance itself by selling water to oil drillers, who need millions of gallons to bring in a single well.
Carlson acknowledged the steep state spending increase, which is financed largely by oil tax revenues, while saying the lion's share of spending would be for roads and other one-time projects rather than ongoing programs.
He recounted what he said was an exchange with a caller on a radio program who complained about rapidly rising state spending. Where would you cut? Carlson asked. Road construction? Flood protection against the rapidly rising waters of Devils Lake? A proposed Red River diversion to shield Fargo from spring floods?
"I looked at the list of things we spent money on this time," Carlson said Thursday. "There was a lot of spending, but in my opinion, we put it in the right place."
Democrats said they supported a number of the Legislature's initiatives, but said improvements in social programs should have come before reducing corporate income taxes.
Majority Republicans rejected attempts to expand the reach of a health insurance program for children of low-income families, and reduced a $5 million proposal for child care worker training to $3.1 million.
"There was a failure to look beyond this two-year budget window," said Sen. Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks, the assistant Senate minority leader. "Certainly there were some accomplishments here, but we had a tremendous opportunity, and I don't think we took full advantage of that opportunity."
The Legislature's spending plan for the 2011-13 budget cycle, which begins July 1, includes almost $4.1 billion in state general fund spending, which is financed mostly by taxes on sales, income and energy. The sum represents a 25 percent increase over present levels.
The state's total budget — including federal aid and other revenues, such as state gasoline taxes, that are not counted as part of the general fund — is $9.92 billion, an increase of 12.12 percent over two years.
Lawmakers continued a program that provides subsidies to local school districts that are used to cut local property taxes, an initiative that will cost almost $342 million over two years to maintain. They cut individual income tax rates by 18 percent and corporate rates by almost 20 percent.