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'Funding our priorities': Mike Lefor discusses goals for upcoming legislative session

For State Rep. Mike Lefor, legislature is about priorities. Among his top priorities for the 2019 session are funding for infrastructure, education and behavioral health; keeping the New England prison open; and giving public employees a salary i...

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Mike Lefor

For State Rep. Mike Lefor, legislature is about priorities. Among his top priorities for the 2019 session are funding for infrastructure, education and behavioral health; keeping the New England prison open; and giving public employees a salary increase.

A big focus for him will be getting Operation Prairie Dog passed, a infrastructure bill introduced by Senator Rich Wardner that distributes oil revenue across the state.

"That would help Dickinson with debt reduction as well as dollars hopefully for infrastructure--or capital projects," Lefor said.

For school infrastructure, he has a different plan. He'd like to use money from the legacy fund to bond for school construction projects.

"We've built two new schools in Dickinson within the last several years, and what I understand is we're going to have to be building a couple more," he said. "That burden should not be on the local taxpayer soley. It should be the state is reaping the rewards of the oil revenue."

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To help schools deal with the increase in population, he would also like to increase--or at least maintain--the current per-student payment, the amount of money allocated to a district based on its student population.

"There's going to be--in the next two years--a pretty big increase in the number of K-12 students we're going to have, so even if we kept the per-student payment the same, the expense is going to grow quite a bit because of the increase in students."

Lefor is also focused on higher education--Dickinson State University in particular. Gov. Burgum's last budget proposal would slash DSU's budget by 10 percent, which Lefor is against.

"I have no interest in cutting DSU," he said. "DSU is already on a very thin budget as it is, and to say we're going to cut 10 percent makes absolutely no sense to me. This is an area where you invest in."

Instead, Lefor would like to see more funding in higher education and more technical programs to help meet local workforce demands.

"We have a workforce shortage, and ... we need to ... offer those certifications that match up with workforce needs," he said. "These people go to school here, then once they get their certification in the areas we need in this part of the state, they'll have a bigger tendency to stay in this part of the state."

He wants to invest in behavioral health, too, particularly in a new 16-bed facility in Dickinson that would focus on addiction treatment.

"Incarceration shouldn't be our goal here," he said. "Our goal here is to rehabilitate people and to get them back into having a job and being productive citizens."

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Funding for long-term care is also a concern. Although the governor's last budget proposal calls for a one percent inflationary adjustment, Lefor said from what he's heard from the Nursing Home Association, that's not enough. They're asking for a three percent increase.

"The nursing homes in North Dakota are at a crisis stage," he said. "I know of some hospitals that are utilizing some of their funding to help pay for nursing home care. We have to take a look at how best to fund those. Not only do you need to be able to be competitive from a salary perspective, but you need to take care of your buildings and infrastructure and not let them fall apart."

He also wants to make sure that the New England prison remains open.

"We feel that it provides a tremendous service to the people of North Dakota," he said. "They've done everything the DOCR (Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations) has asked them to do, and any perceived deficiencies, in my mind, from what I've read, are fixable. We don't want to spend money for temporary housing until they remodel the MRCC (Missouri River Correctional Facility) in Bismarck. We felt that closing New England would be short-sighted and ill-conceived."

Lefor said he would also like to see legislation that gives public employees a salary increase.

"We cut a lot last time," he said. "We need to make sure that they're in the mix, because they haven't had a raise for two years."

When it comes to legislature, he said, "It always comes down to funding our priorities. ... "Unfortunately at some point, there's a cut off. It's a matter of the dollars we're bringing in versus what we can spend."

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