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North Dakota oil counties get boost

BISMARCK -- North Dakota lawmakers wrapped up the special session on Friday after providing millions of dollars in additional disaster relief and repealing a law requiring the University of North Dakota to keep its Fighting Sioux nickname. Oil country also got a boost.

Deemed by lawmakers as the most important work of the session, the disaster relief bill helps flood-damaged communities and oil and gas counties struggling to keep up with development.

"I think it's a good piece of work," said House Majority Leader Al Carlson of Fargo. "We did as much as we could to be a bridge to the future."

Western North Dakota lawmakers said they were pleased with the additional help for the oil-producing counties. The bill includes an additional $30 million for the oil and gas impact grant fund, with priority going to emergency service requests.

It also includes $5 million to allow for distributions of $1.25 million to each new major oil-producing county. Hettinger, Golden Valley, Mercer and McLean counties are expected to benefit. Sen. Don Schaible, R-Mott, said the provision allows counties to be proactive.

"It will not only save us headaches but also probably money and infrastructure issues," he said.

Democrats wanted to see $50 million in additional oil and gas impact grant funding, on top of the $100 million already in place. Schaible said he thinks the extra $30 million is enough for now, and additional money can be considered when lawmakers return in January 2013.

Legislators also agreed to increase the state's allowable tax credits from $4 million to $15 million for the development of affordable housing. Sen. George Nodland, R-Dickinson, said this will make "a tremendous difference" in western North Dakota.

The bill also provides a rebuilders loan program to help North Dakotans rebuild their flood-damaged home or buy a new home. Residents who incurred flood damage in Barnes, Benson, Burleigh, McHenry, Morton, Ramsey, Renville, Richland and Ward counties would be eligible.

Lawmakers also approved $30 million in flood-impacted political subdivision infrastructure development grants.

Overall, the bill includes $159 million in state general funds. There is also $80 million in special funds, and the Department of Transportation's borrowing authority was increased by $80 million for emergency relief projects. The state is waiting to hear if it will receive $235 million in federal community development block grants.

Finneman is a multimedia reporter

for Forum Communications Co.