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State representatives: Legislators have not done enough to help

Saying state legislators have not done enough to ease the strain on western North Dakotans brought on by the oil boom, some community members let two politicians know their feelings during a roundtable discussion Wednesday in Dickinson.

A handful of community leaders and citizens voiced their concerns during an hour-long back-and-forth hosted by state Rep. Jessica Haak, D-Jamestown, and state Democratic House Minority Leader Kenton Onstad of Parshall.

Much of the talk centered on the outcomes of the 2013 North Dakota legislative session, but a variety of topics were discussed.

"I was disappointed with the session," said Dickinson resident Rich Brauhn, who ran as a Democrat for the state's District 36 state Senate seat in the last election. "There were a lot of missed opportunities -- not only on welfare, but on education and resources being spent on oil impacts. I was really disappointed in no action being taken to preserve some of our national historic sites and our beauty here in western North Dakota, which is literally being sold to the top oil dollar."

Onstad said he wished more could have been done during the session in the way of property tax relief, as opposed to corporate tax cuts.

"We emphasized lowering the extraction tax, corporate tax, income tax, but there was more of an emphasis on that throughout the session than trying to deal with property tax relief," Onstad said. "When you look at western North Dakota, it probably has $2 billion worth of needs and every political subdivision can list them. Ninety-five percent of those are viable needs. So we have a huge need and the concern I have is, when we start reducing revenues, then we're going to become more dependent on a one-time resource."

With Republicans having clear control of the state political climate in North Dakota, Onstad wondered whether having a "super majority" in the Peace Garden State is a good thing for its residents.

"Going forward, we need to ask if that's in the best interest of the state," Onstad said. "That dominance is not being reflected on each of the individuals being represented in their districts. The dominance is because they're trying to represent an ideology within their party. If you actually look at that group, that's a super minority within the super majority."

A self-described "women and children's issues advocate," Haak lamented the fact that legislators didn't do more in the area of child care, which has been a big issue in western North Dakota since the ramping up of the Bakken energy play.

"We had incredible opportunities with child care funding," Haak said. "Now, what we did was good, but we had an opportunity to give one-time funds so school districts could either start up or address needs regarding early childhood education. That idea was rejected because (Republicans) said local school districts could raise their own mills. I think we fell short in that area."

Piggy-backing on the idea that North Dakota legislators could have done more to combat social problems, Dickinson's Domestic Violence and Rape Crises Center executive director Darianne Johnson said her facility turned away six people -- a statement that drew a gasp from Haak -- on Wednesday alone.

"Our capacity is 18 and we have 20 women and children in the shelter right now," Johnson said. "We have no alternatives. We can't do motels anymore. When you talk about oil impact money, the oil impact money that we could apply for was to send people out of state, which makes no sense. I can tell you that 99.9 percent of the time, these people don't want to leave the state -- they want to find someplace to live here because there are jobs and this is where they want start again."

With a staff of just four people, Johnson said it is difficult to address the needs of individuals and families in crises situations across an eight county area in southwest North Dakota, which is exactly what her agency is charged with doing.

"The only other grant we could have applied for with oil impact monies was help with rents," Johnson said. "With the area that we cover, there was no way we could even begin to take on a responsibility like that across more than 10,000 square miles."

Brauhn -- who went so far as to suggest North Dakota was on the verge of becoming an "oligarchy" -- and Dickinson resident Keith Fernsler said the checks and balances in the state political and regulatory system are lacking.

"I've been very concerned about what we're seeing," Fernsler said. "If anybody believes (North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources Director) Lynn Helms is representing the public, you'd have to be utterly blind. It's just insane."

Despite the seemingly daunting task of taking on state Republicans, Onstad and Haak agreed that it would likely have to be younger Democrats -- like Haak herself -- that would need to do the heavy lifting in coming years.

"It's important that we have younger people step up," Haak said. "We're the generation that's going to be living here for the next 30, 40 or 50 years and it's going to be our kids who inherent what's happening now. It's important that we invest in infrastructure and education so that we have sustainable communities rather just pumping out oil workers."

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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