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Local legislators talk about thoughts, concerns on Dalrymple's proposed budget

Dickinson state legislators said that Gov. Jack Dalrymple's Executive Budget was a starting point, but they did have some concerns regarding his proposal and its affect on Dickinson.

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Rich Wardner

Dickinson state legislators said that Gov. Jack Dalrymple's Executive Budget was a starting point, but they did have some concerns regarding his proposal and its affect on Dickinson.

The state legislature will begin working on the next biennium's budget on Jan. 3 and will then have 80 legislative days to complete it, said Rep. Vicky Steiner, R-Dickinson.

"I just think it's too early to get excited about it because it's really a proposal or a suggestion, if you will, for the legislature," Steiner said. "We're the only ones who appropriate money and actually pass a state budget. He makes the proposal."

She also noted that governor-elect Burgum may also have some changes to make to the proposed budget. Her main concern was that there were some things removed from the energy impact fund that she would like to see restored-a concern echoed by state Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson and state Sen. Kelly Armstrong, R-District 36.

Armstrong said there were some changes made to the funds set aside for the hub cities-such as Minot, Williston and Dickinson-which were hit hardest by the oil boom. These cities felt the most severe effects of the oil boom and now have debt loads to deal with as a result, he said. The legislature needs to ensure that the funds for these areas are protected. The oil impact grants were removed entirely from the governor's budget, something that could negatively affect the western half of the state.

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"Some of this is just the reality of having to create a budget with way less money," Armstrong said. "We're not the only location that will get less than they got the last time because, quite frankly everybody will. This will just be a smaller budget."

Ultimately he said he would fight for and hope that the promises made previously to different entities in the state were fulfilled this time around. He also noted that this budget is still the third or fourth largest that the state has ever had, though it is smaller than the last two.

"As a whole I thought there were a lot of good things in there," Wardner said. "I think the governor has done a good job of taking care of some of the important, high-priority things in human services."

Wardner was also worried about the governor's proposal to use the property tax relief fund and the strategic investment and infrastructure fund as a source of ongoing revenue. While sales and income tax money is spent as it comes in, these funds come from oil tax money and had previously served more as a fallback rather than a more immediate spending source.

He noted that he and the rest of the lawmakers would have their hands full in the coming months putting together the budget.

"It looks like it's going to be a hold-even budget," Steiner said. "I don't want people to be scared that there's going to be any significant cuts. We actually have some reserve money that can be moved into spots, but there's always discussions about government programs and which ones should be trimmed, so I would love it if my district's constituents would call and let me know what they think."

Higher education

Dickinson State University president Thomas Mitzel said that a 19-member budget council is working on three possible scenarios for budget cuts for the university.

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"I have asked for them to look at three budget levels, a 10, 15 and 25 percent level," Mitzel said. "We do not want to be caught off guard. This morning's budget conversation, while not rosy by any outlook, is something to which we have already been discussing."

Dalrymple proposed a 15 percent budget cut on Wednesday for higher education funding with the potential for 5 percent to be made up with tuition increases of 2.5 percent each year of the biennium.

DSU had falling enrollment during this biennium with a 9 percent decrease from the fall of 2014 until the fall of 2015.

But DSU has increased enrollment 5 percent from the fall semester of 2015 to this current semester.

DSU's fall enrollment for this year reached 1,386-which Mitzel said he feels is a big improvement.

"We really had a 14 percent turn-around in enrollment from the fall of '14 to the fall of '16," he said. "We are very proud of that and we have been working very hard."

However, because of the drops in enrollment steadily from 2012, when the university had 1,837 enrolled, Mitzel said there is a chance the university might have a 25 percent budget cut.

"With DSU numbers perennially falling up until this year, we lose appropriated funding on that, but as we turn this around, what I have been asking legislators to do is to look at that student credit hour funding and maybe a give us a bit of a push on that because we are turning around," he said. "DSU has had a really beautiful turn around over the past three years, and we want to keep that momentum going."

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Mitzel said he has been asking legislators to give DSU a little push forward this biennium-which ends June 30, 2017.

"I have been asking legislators that we need a little bit of wind in our sails through this biennium to make sure that we can continue to move forward in that positive direction," he said. "After this biennium we are going to be perfectly fine, but we need help this biennium."

The proposed budget will still need approval from legislators before it will be passed and placed into effect during the next biennium.

Rep. Mike Lefor, R-Dickinson, said that the proposal will likely go through multiple changes before passing.

"The governor's budget, to my way of thinking, is a starting point because the legislature is the only ones that are in power to actually spend money," he said. "It's not something, at this point, we should be overly concerned about because ... as (legislators) we are going to have our say, our input on it."

Lefor said he knows the importance of funding for higher education.

"For our local institution, I want to make sure that they are able to succeed and grow, especially with Dr. Mitzel as president. He has done an outstanding job in recruiting and retaining students," he said. "I think the university in Dickinson is doing what they need to do, and it's our job as legislators to make sure that they have the appropriate level of funding to do their job and do it well."

Mitzel said that currently the plan is to "plan for the worst and hope for the best."

K-12

Funding for K-12 education was not cut as Dalrymple's budget accessed money from the Foundation Aid Stabilization Fund to protect the schools from the statewide 10 percent budget cuts. His proposed budget would move $140 million to the Foundation Aid, according to the governor's website.

The state would then maintain the current amount it pays per student the first year of the biennium and then increase by 1 percent of funding per student the second year, according to the site.

Doug Sullivan, superintendent of Dickinson Public Schools, said they had prepared for the worst but were happy with the proposal for K-12 education.

"We're pleased that it doesn't propose a budget reduction for the public schools, and we know that the legislature has a difficult task ahead of it," Sullivan said. "If they're able to keep us whole in the first year and give us a 1 percent increase in the second year, the Dickinson Public Schools will be just fine."

Wardner noted that K-12 had been protected by the Foundation Aid Stabilization Fund this past biennium-but now that money needs to be replaced. Voters passed Measure 2 in November which will allow lawmakers to use money in the fund-while still leaving 15 percent of the education budget-in order to protect K-12 education.

"Gov. Dalrymple has been a strong supporter of education, and we were optimistic that, if he could, he would keep us whole," Sullivan said.

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