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State budget surplus projection doubles to $1.6B

BISMARCK -- At this rate, we're going to need a bigger piggy bank.

North Dakota's already-rich outlook got richer Wednesday after the latest budget report estimated the surplus in the state's general fund will hit a new high of $1.6 billion by the time the current biennium ends next June.

That's nearly double the $850 million surplus projected just two months ago.

The staggering growth has come largely from sales and income taxes, which have flowed into state coffers much faster than expected.

Meanwhile, oil and gas taxes have swelled a number of reserve accounts that are separate from the general fund.

By law, oil and gas taxes can only contribute $300 million per biennium to the general fund. But revenues from those taxes far exceed that amount: The state took in $1.7 billion in oil and gas taxes in the last fiscal year, and expects to add another $2.1 billion by the end of the biennium.

That leaves accounts like the legacy fund and schools trust fund flush with cash.

Between general and reserve fund revenues, the state expects to collect more than $8 billion during the biennium.

The new figures were presented Wednesday at a legislative hearing.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple said while the surplus is a boon, the state has needs that won't be cheap to meet.

"We feel we have infrastructure needs out there that at least equal if not exceed that amount," he told The Forum.

His budget proposes two basic uses for the unobligated surplus: sustaining and expanding property tax relief and one-time infrastructure investments.

He said a combination of existing and new tax relief would cost nearly $1 billion, and that public works projects in western North Dakota could cost even more.

With those needs factored in, "even a big number like $2 billion can look a lot smaller," he said.

Ryan Taylor, the state senate minority leader who is running against Dalrymple, said he'd expand those priorities to include education, teacher pay, and college scholarships. He also said he'd extend infrastructure to statewide projects, including flood control, but that the state must be sure to take care of the oil-producing areas that have driven the boom.

Taylor has accused Dalrymple of sitting on the mounting surplus as needs mount.

"First and foremost, we don't leave people hanging out there where a lot of this money is generated," he said. "Yes, there's money, but there's needs that come with it."