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With surplus of cash, N. Dakota hears pleas for help paying bills

BISMARCK -- Like a lottery winner who hears from a long-lost relative or friend, the cash-rich state of North Dakota gets similar pleas for help.

State Treasurer Kelly Schmidt said that in the past year and a half, her office has received a handful of emails and letters from people asking for help to pay their bills.

Most recently, her office got a letter from a woman, originally from Sargent County, claiming to be elderly and homeless.

The woman was asking the state to help pay more than $14,000 in hospital bills, which were included in the letter. The woman called Friday to follow up on her letter.

Schmidt said it's also not uncommon to hear from inmates asking the state to pay their fines.

"If I have an opportunity, I will send an email or letter back that educates the person on the topic they are requesting," she said.

Others ask about the state's Legacy Fund and when they will receive their cut of the oil taxes that have helped give the state a $1.5 billion surplus when the state budget cycle ended in June.

But the state constitution forbids such payments to residents.

"Until the people of the state change the constitution, I'm bound to follow their wishes," Schmidt said.

When Alaska benefitted from an oil boom in 1970s, it set up a system of direct payments to residents. That system also comes with millions of dollars in administrative costs.

Oil tax revenue has been pouring money into the Legacy Fund. It now sits at $1.2 billion but can't be touched until 2017. How it is to be spent has yet to be determined.

Schmidt said she would welcome a conversation about direct payments.

Rep. Vicky Steiner, R-Dickinson, who sponsored a bill in this year's legislative session that would have included a check from the state along with property tax bills, said she wouldn't vote for it.

"I don't think that was ever the intent of the fund," she said. "But if a population felt that's what they wanted to, they can change the law."

A failed resolution proposed by Rep. Marvin Nelson, D-Rolla, would have used the state's surplus money for some form of direct payment.

Writing checks from the Legacy Fund would be OK with him.

"I wouldn't have a problem with it," he said. "We could do worse with the fund."

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.