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Associated Press, Published May 06 2013

ND Legislature: Record spending, session length

BISMARCK — North Dakota's Republican-led Legislature took the entire 80 days allowed by law to spend a record amount of cash, fueled by the state's oil wealth.

Lawmakers also passed more than 475 bills that did everything from strengthen North Dakota's drunken driving laws to allowing North Dakotans with concealed weapon permits to pack heat in church. But nothing the Legislature did in 2013 attracted as much attention outside the Capitol as anti-abortion measures that give the state the toughest restrictions in the nation.

North Dakota's newfound oil riches placed unprecedented demands during the session for spending on roads, schools, public works, law enforcement and emergency medical services. And lawmakers' spending reflected that. The entire two-year budget for North Dakota state government over the next two years, including federal aid, is $14 billion, or about $10 billion more than a decade ago, budget director Pam Sharp said. The general fund share of the budget $6.8 billion.

Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple hailed the session as historic, with record funding for education and infrastructure and $1.1 billion in property, individual and corporate tax relief.

"I truly believe it will go down in the history as one of the greatest, if not the greatest session, in our state history," Dalrymple told reporters following the session's marathon 20-hour day that ended at 4:35 a.m. Saturday. The governor made no mention of the anti-abortion bills, nor did he include the measures in a nine-page press release outlining the session's highlights.

Democrats accused GOP colleagues of lack of leadership and said the session was marred by the abortion bills that are sure to draw a legal challenge from abortion-rights activists.

"This session was one of misplaced priorities and squandered opportunities," said Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks.

With North Dakota's healthy financial trend expected to continue, the wish list from lawmakers will likely grow. They'll get another shot at record revenue — and spending — in the next legislative session.

Sharp said the state's general fund alone is expected to receive and average of more than $200 million monthly over the next two-year budget cycle, for a total of $4.9 billion.

But forecasts, which have been largely based on oil prices and production, have been far from scientific as the state's oil patch continues to outpace analysts' projections.

North Dakota's Legacy Fund, for example, topped $1 billion in assets last month. Oil revenue began gushing into the fund only since September 2011 and analysts initially estimated it would have a $618 million balance when the state's current two-year budget period ends on June 30.

The fund gets 30 percent of the state's oil tax collections. None of the money can be spent until 2017, and only if the Legislature decides by a two-thirds vote to dip into it.

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Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.