Learning lessons in the Legislature
It has been three months since the 63rd legislative session was completed and I have delayed writing a final summary simply because I was disappointed in several political moves at the end.
The session accomplished a lot of good for many people, but I'm afraid it's what it didn't do that it will be remembered for. What it didn't do was properly fund the oil and gas counties so that they will be able to keep up with the drilling activity and repair the damages it causes.
The session did accomplish funding rural water projects, not only Western Water, Southwest Water but many others across the state so that residents will be able to get quality water anywhere in North Dakota. It is my belief that the completion of the water system will be the longest serving and the best benefit that will come of the oil activity.
The state was also able to invest in state highways and, over the next few years, we will see the benefits of those investments.
In regard to property tax relief, the returning of state dollars to pay local expenses, city, county and schools, property tax would raise about 40 percent and the reduction of income tax reduces the dollars available to grow state government. Some say that the session should have sent the money back for oil impact and, if that were true, I would have supported it. The session on the last day did raise taxes on royalty owners by $180 million and not one penny went to infrastructure.
The one question that is always asked is what happened to the funding for the oil and gas counties? That was one of the big disappointments, but here is the story as I understand it.
Over the last year, representatives from the oil-producing counties met and came up with a plan that would fund the hub cities and the rural areas where the impact really is.
In the previous session, the western legislators had not worked together for a common solution. The House passed the bill intact but the Senate reduced the funding by $350 million and I understand the requests came from the governor's office.
The public outcry caused the Senate to reconsider and they restored most of the money, though not in the formula that was proposed. Some of the changes included funding $60 million for airports in the hub cities and taking the money away from the oil-producing counties and cities.
The new formula also reinstated the hub cities into the distribution formula. The formula is based on population so hub cities received dollars that should have gone to the rural areas. To throw salt on the wound, a senator who had worked with the oil legislators had an amendment added at the last second to remove an additional $14 million from the grant funds for rural areas and gave it to Dickinson and Minot.
You can argue what impact those communities have but there is no argument that the area they took the money from has a much greater need.
One comment that really bothered me came from an oil executive stating that the governor shouldn't worry about the infrastructure needs in small towns because oil field personnel didn't want to live in them anyway and he suggested shifting the funds to hub cities.
Western legislators were also disappointed when there was not one representative from oil-producing counties on the conference committee that decided the final outcome of the funding formula. Those people were picked by the majority and minority leaders in the Senate and House.
What can be done to change the outcome? North Dakota needs new leaders in the House and Senate to start with. Some would say to get rid of the Senate, but that won't happen.
There are several radical choices. If the Senate were elected by county and the House by population, it would give rural areas more influence in the legislative process.
One other lesson is that the county commissioners in the four oil-producing counties need to determine their strength and use it to get the oil companies to persuade the governor to return more dollars.
The tribe did it and they are getting 50 percent of all oil tax revenue back with no strings. The oil counties are lucky to get 20 percent back with all kinds of requirements and reports.
Again, let me say that there were a lot of good things that came out of the session. North Dakota is the No. 1 state in opportunities for its residents and unemployment is the lowest in the nation.
We also have the fastest-growing personal income and have not had to address the recession.
Drovdal is a Republican from Arnegard representing District 39 in the North Dakota House of Representatives.