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Democratic lawmaker says he’ll try to delay N.D. governor’s residence construction

BISMARCK - A Democratic state lawmaker plans to introduce a bill during next month's special session that could delay construction of a new multimillion-dollar governor's residence, saying it "doesn't look too smart" to start the project when the...

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A view of the plans for the new North Dakota governor's mansion. (Chris Hawley Architects)

BISMARCK – A Democratic state lawmaker plans to introduce a bill during next month’s special session that could delay construction of a new multimillion-dollar governor’s residence, saying it “doesn’t look too smart” to start the project when the state is struggling financially.

Construction on the 13,600-square-foot residence is tentatively scheduled to being the first week of August – the same week the Legislature will convene in a special session called by Gov. Jack Dalrymple on Wednesday to balance a revenue shortfall that’s projected to grow to $310 million by the end of the 2015-17 biennium.

“I think it’s absolutely the wrong message,” Rep. Jerry Kelsh, D-Fullerton, said Friday. “In the first place, we don’t need a new residence. It’s not falling down. It’s in good repair.”

Lawmakers voted in April 2015 to spend up to $4 million from the state’s Capitol Building Trust Fund to replace the existing 56-year-old residence if $1 million in private funds could be raised.

They said the 10,000-square-foot, ranch-style residence has problems ranging from security concerns to a lack of handicapped accessibility and would cost up to $3 million to repair and upgrade, and that a more impressive governor’s residence would better reflect North Dakota’s recent prosperity owed largely to an oil boom that has since slumped.

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The trust fund is a constitutional fund that gets most of its money from oil and gas royalties on state-owned trust land and can only be used for improvements on the Capitol grounds.

“This isn’t general fund money,” said John Boyle, director of the state’s Facility Management division, which coordinates Capitol projects.

But Kelsh, who sits on the nine-member Capitol Grounds Planning Commission, noted there are general fund dollars appropriated for Capitol grounds projects in Facility Management’s budget. Boyle said those dollars totaled $1.28 million for 2015-17, of which about $550,000 has already been spent and another $300,000 is under contract.

Kelsh said his bill will propose shifting the general fund dollars to help cover the revenue shortfall and then replacing them with trust fund money that was appropriated for the residence.

However, first it will have to make it through the delayed bills committee controlled by the Republican majority when the Legislature convenes Aug. 2 for a three-day special session.

House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, questioned whether what Kelsh is proposing would be allowed under state law. But he said he isn’t opposed to delaying construction.

“I’m not against having that project stopped for now, but I am against moving (the money) for anything else,” he said. “The timing just isn’t right for today, so let’s put it on hold for a little bit.”

The Friends of the North Dakota Governor’s Residence fundraising committee has received more than 120 donations totaling about $520,000 for the project, including from nearly 30 lawmakers, according to state Rep. Pamela Anderson, D-Fargo, who co-chairs the committee. The Legislature has required that at least $500,000 in private funds be transferred to the trust fund before construction can start.

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Anderson said delaying the project would force donors to redo their tax returns unless they allow the committee to hold their donations. She said a new governor’s residence is needed at some point.

“I personally think it should move forward. It’s just going to cost more later on down the road,” she said, adding, “a lot of people agree with Jerry, and I understand that, too.”

The trust fund had a balance of $6.94 million at the end of April, of which $5.71 million is earmarked for projects this biennium: $4 million for the residence, $1.4 million for a sign project that hasn’t started yet and $310,000 for electrical improvements to the Capitol’s Legislative Wing that are nearly completed, Boyle said.

Construction on the residence was scheduled to begin Aug. 15 but the project is about two weeks ahead of schedule, Boyle said. He expects to receive a guaranteed maximum price from construction manager JE Dunn Construction Co. on July 28 and hopes it will be $3.9 million, which will allow at least $1 million – if the committee raises that much – to be spent on landscaping, indoor and outdoor furnishings, architecture and engineering fees and demolition of the existing residence. About $400,000 has been committed to the project so far, Boyle said.

The project is still on schedule for a Thanksgiving 2017 completion, and Boyle hopes to have the structure buttoned up by winter.

“The earlier we can start, the better,” he said.

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