WHAT TO DO WITH STIMULUS FUNDS?
During the last of three "Coffee With Your Legislators" events Saturday, what to do with stimulus package money seemed to take center stage.
The event, held in Dickinson City Hall, featured Republican Sens. Rich Wardner and George Nodland, Democrat Rep. Shirley Meyer and Republican Rep. Nancy Johnson, all from Dickinson, who updated the 30 or so attendees on bills being considered and where money is being spent.
Wardner began the event by clearing the air about North Dakota's money.
"When you take a look at the end of this biennium, we will not have $1.2 billion laying on the table," Wardner said, adding the number was projected in December when things looked differently, and since has dropped due to the economy.
The state is sitting at around $540 million, Wardner said, adding if leaders stopped allocating money, that amount would not change.
In May, he added, incentives will be triggered in the oil patch, which include new wells having a 24-month holiday from extraction taxes and will only pay a 5 percent production tax, and a lower tax rate of 9.5 percent for existing wells.
"That will affect the state revenue," Wardner said. "The trigger price is around 50 bucks a barrel.
"Things are slowing up out here, and remember all those crews out there, they pay income tax and they buy things. So we're going to see a hit in those areas, too," he said.
Wardner said there are many groups wanting to spend money and members of the Legislature have good ideas, not just the governor.
"We're not done yet," Wardner said. "We're not done because we've got stimulus money to deal with. The stimulus money is about $650 million. We're going to spend some money, so don't worry, the economy in North Dakota is going to get stimulated."
Wardner said the Legislature is looking for places to put the stimulus money.
"There are a lot of people that say, 'spend it, that's what it's for,' and I agree, but we're spending a lot of our own money," Wardner said. "We do need to be careful, I would hate to have it happen that we would end up at the end of the next biennium revenues down and we have to cut programs or raise taxes."
Nodland noted the stimulus bill has added controversy to highway distribution funds.
"Originally that bill the governor recommended an extra $120 million go into that fund to be distributed," Nodland said. "The stimulus bill gave us another $170 million.
"What we're recommending in the Senate is taking $100 million from the governor's budget and extending that two years from now into the next biennium. That's just good sound practice of handling money."
By spending all the money at once, some projects may get done that don't need to be done, he added.
Johnson and Meyer also touched on the stimulus package.
"As you well know, when they put out those stimulus dollars there are some strings attached," Johnson said. "They put out some stipulations as to how Job Service could be giving out those unemployment dollars. Personally I think the stimulus dollars have made the session more difficult. Our state isn't in the same kind of situation where we're in deficits like other states."
A challenge, Johnson added, is knowing what all the rules and stipulations are behind some of the stimulus money.
"The reasoning behind the stimulus package is to stimulate the economy," Meyer said. "North Dakota we find ourselves in a unique situation because we're in the black. With every document we've gotten from the stimulus package, it is not to be used to supplant the general fund dollars."
Meyer added that she believes the governor's budget should be implemented and the state should use the stimulus funds for programs and people.
"For the first time when we are in the black we could use funds for some of these programs that down the road could save our state and hundreds of millions of dollars," Meyer said. "It's just my thought that we shouldn't be using these dollars to shore up the general fund, because quite frankly, our general fund doesn't need shoring up."
Nodland also highlighted a few bills the House and Senate recently passed, including Bill 1162, which stipulated that all U.S. flags flown in North Dakota had to be American made as of July 4, 2010.
"I think that's pretty good," Nodland said. "There's two sides to that; I'm a strong veteran and believe in the American flag and what it means to everybody, but that also promotes buying American made."
Some controversy over the bill was noted, Nodland said, when companies discussed trade agreements with other countries that were in place.
"We were going to add an amendment on the Senate side to make all government buildings, force them to fly American-made flags, and that got people a little nervous so we backed off on that, but added a description of what a flag is."
Wardner ended Saturday's session by asking the public's patience.
"Be patient with us," Wardner said. "There's a lot of people working hard. We're trying to do the right thing."