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Gubernatorial Debate: Candidates square off on oil boom challenges

FARGO -- The candidates in the North Dakota governor's race clashed in a debate Friday over their differing approaches to dealing with challenges brought by the oil boom.

Sen. Ryan Taylor, D-Towner, who is trying to unseat Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple, repeating what has been a refrain of his campaign, argued that state government's response to date has been lacking, resulting in Oil Patch residents bemoaning the loss of their quality of life.

Dalrymple, who served earlier as lieutenant governor and on a key budget committee in the Legislature, touted his experience and the billions of dollars the state is spending on infrastructure improvements.

The candidates squared off in a debate co-sponsored by AARP that aired Friday evening on Prairie Public television stations around the state.

The issue of infrastructure investment came in response to a question of how best to spend the state's projected $1.6 billion surplus.

Taylor argued that more money should be left for local governments to decide directly how to meet their needs, rather than to go to Bismarck for distribution as impact grants.

Dalrymple said the oil impact funds are flowing quickly to communities, sometimes within 30 days, and touted his $2.5 billion infrastructure plan for roads, housing and other public works.

Both candidates support additional property tax relief, but differed over the details. Ryan's approach would include relief for renters, while Dalrymple also proposes reductions in the state's individual income tax.

When the discussion focused on the oil and gas boom, the two gubernatorial candidates again differed over their public works spending proposals.

Dalrymple noted that the current budget devotes $1.2 billion to rebuilding roads and other infrastructure, including money for county and township roads. The governor said he proposes another $2.5 billion in statewide infrastructure improvements in the next two-year budget.

"This response is taking place right now," Dalrymple said.

Taylor countered, "There's certainly some big numbers, but they're not big enough." Instead of "bragging about surpluses," he added, officials in Bismarck should be allowing more money to remain in the 17 oil and gas counties wrestling with impacts.

Taylor advocates that at least 40 percent of the impact aid stay in the communities so the communities do not have to come "hat in hand" to ask for a grant in 12 or 18 months "after the damage is done."

Impact funds flow quickly to the Oil Patch, Dalrymple responded. "We are sending out money on a very prompt basis. It's an excellent way to address immediate impacts."

Each candidate was asked to list his priorities, with infrastructure again emerging as a theme.

"Infrastructure investment is key in North Dakota, throughout out state, not just in western North Dakota," Dalrymple said, noting that the state must distinguish between one-time investments and ongoing needs.

The governor said he is proposing $400 million in additional property tax relief, as well as cutting the statewide school levy in half, which would take additional pressure off local property taxes.

Taylor said his top priority will be "protecting and preserving the quality of life in North Dakota," which he said has been upended by the oil and gas boom.

The crime rate has tripled in areas as a result, the challenger said, but the number of crime fighters has not.

Taylor said he also would revamp college loan programs, saying the average North Dakota student graduates with $25,000 in student loans.

In response, Dalrymple said he was the author of a 2009 boost that increased financial support to allow 2½times as many students to participate, and introduced $6,000 merit scholarships.