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House passes commerce budget despite concerns over homeless grants

BISMARCK — House lawmakers voted Thursday, April 6 to move homeless shelter grants into a discretionary fund, a move that some Democrats warned could harm North Dakota's efforts to address homelessness.

The House passed the budget bill for the Department of Commerce in a 66-25 vote Thursday. It includes $29.9 million in general fund spending, reducing it almost to 2007-09 levels, said Rep. Roscoe Streyle, R-Minot.

Lawmakers have been looking to trim budgets in the face of reduced tax revenue, and the House has passed several spending bills in recent days that have attracted debate.

Much of the discussion Thursday morning centered on the homeless shelter grants, which the Senate proposed funding at $300,000. The House's version of the bill lists no money set aside for the grants, but Streyle was quick to point out that they proposed shifting that into a discretionary fund worth $1.5 million.

"What we did is provide more flexibility to the new commissioner," Streyle said, noting that Gov. Doug Burgum's proposed budget didn't include the grants. "If they want to do it at $300,000 or $500,000, they have absolute discretion."

But that didn't sit well with some Democrats. Rep. Joshua Boschee, D-Fargo, called it a "cop out" and said the grants have helped people stay in their homes and provided shelter to domestic violence victims.

"And all of that is at risk now because we don't feel as a body that it's a priority for us to provide a line item," he said, adding that federal matching funds could be at risk.

Rep. Alisa Mitskog, D-Wahpeton, said the Commerce Department will likely focus on issues related to the state's economy and workforce, and she worried homeless issues will "go by the wayside."

Two years ago, lawmakers set aside $1.5 million in one-time funding for the homeless grants. Those funds went to organizations across the state, including the YWCA Cass Clay and the New Life Center in Fargo, and attracted matching federal dollars and private donations.

Rep. David Monson, R-Osnabrock, said putting the money in a discretionary pool gives the department better abilities to attract federal money.

“If we earmark this for a program and there’s no federal money to match, that money is sitting there wasted,” he said.

The House and Senate will have to reconcile the differing versions of the bill before it goes to the governor.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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