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NDDOT cuts temporary workforce as gas taxes, other user revenues drop

BISMARCK - In another casualty of slumping crude oil prices, the North Dakota Department of Transportation is cutting back on temporary employees to help offset a projected $69 million shortfall in gas tax collections, registration fees and other...

BISMARCK – In another casualty of slumping crude oil prices, the North Dakota Department of Transportation is cutting back on temporary employees to help offset a projected $69 million shortfall in gas tax collections, registration fees and other user-based revenues, a spokeswoman said Monday.

Department spokeswoman Peggy Anderson said the layoffs, reduced hours and unfilled vacancies are not related to the 4.05 percent budget cuts the DOT and other state agencies had to submit last week to help cover a projected $1.07 billion revenue shortfall for the 2015-17 biennium that began July 1.

Rather, the cutbacks stem from a drop in what the DOT calls transportation user revenues: fuel taxes, motor vehicle registration fees and truck regulatory fees.

Anderson said the revenues largely depend on traffic, which has dropped off with the downturn in oil activity in western North Dakota. Last week, the number of active drilling rigs dropped below 40 for the first time since 2009.

“Fewer vehicles in the state, less money coming in,” she said.

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The department projects that by mid-2017, those revenues will be 13 percent, or $69 million, short of what lawmakers anticipated when they approved the DOT’s two-year budget last spring, Anderson said.

To close the gap, division heads have been told to look at their different budget areas and reduce temporary employee salaries by $1.4 million overall, she said.

Anderson said managers have already notified some employees of hours being reduced or positions eliminated, though she said she didn’t have the exact number of layoffs because not all managers had decided where to cut.

“It might mean not hiring somebody this summer. It might mean reducing somebody’s hours right now or letting somebody go,” she said.

As of Feb. 1, the DOT had about 1,056 regular employees and 85 temporary employees, not counting five interns, according to human resources figures.

DOT officials will explain the temporary employee cuts and other budget adjustments to the Legislature’s interim Transportation Committee on Tuesday at the Capitol.

Nick Archuleta, president of North Dakota United, a public employees union which counts state workers among its more than 11,000 members, said Monday he’d heard that the DOT laid off some workers but didn’t know the exact number.

The union supported a bill during last year’s legislative session that would have granted full-time, benefited status to temporary, non-benefited employees who have been working in their position on a full-time basis for at least two years. The bill, which was introduced by state Sen. George Sinner, D-Fargo, died in the Senate on a 16-29 vote.

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Archuleta said he believes full-time status would better protect workers against layoffs, and he worries about how layoffs and limited raises for employees will affect recruitment.

“Those positions are hard to fill, and then when people in the public start seeing folks not getting the full raise they were supposed to get or people getting laid off, that does not instill a lot of confidence that those jobs are stable or career-ready jobs,” he said.

Anderson said the DOT’s financial staff had been tracking trends in user revenue, and it’s coincidence that the cutbacks came at about the same time as the $245 million in general fund budget cuts submitted to the state budget office last Wednesday.

The DOT’s share of those across-the-board cuts, known as an allotment, was $26.6 million. The department reduced funding for road projects in non-oil producing counties by about $4.5 million and will save the other $22 million through project adjustments and lower-than-expected bids attributed to lower energy prices.

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