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Western officials try to justify need for $1.1B in ‘surge’ funding

BISMARCK - Loaded with statistics and lists of shovel-ready construction projects as requested by the House Appropriations Committee, western North Dakota officials tried to justify the need for a $1.1 billion early funding bill that received ano...

BISMARCK – Loaded with statistics and lists of shovel-ready construction projects as requested by the House Appropriations Committee, western North Dakota officials tried to justify the need for a $1.1 billion early funding bill that received another $173 million in proposed amendments Wednesday.

House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, who last week said there was “a lot of blowback” to a letter sent by the committee chairman seeking project and tax information from oil-producing counties and cities, began Wednesday’s hearing by saying House lawmakers acknowledge the needs in the west but it’s also their responsibility to analyze the bill closely.

“This is not political, even though some may try to make it that way. This is not east or west. This is about good management of the public resource,” he said.

Senate Bill 2103, nicknamed the “surge” funding bill, contains $300 million for the top 10 oil-producing counties, $140 million for cities in oil-producing counties, $140.8 million for non-oil-producing counties, $19.2 million for townships in non-oil-producing counties, $215 million for hub cities and $21 million for other cities.

Department of Transportation Director Grant Levi testified in support of the $300 million the bill also contains for state highway projects, but noted it’s $150 million less than what the governor proposed in his jumpstart bill, Senate Bill 2126, which failed in the Senate. Levi said he will submit an amendment with the additional funding for the committee to consider.

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Facing uncertainty over federal funding, Levi said his department isn’t bidding projects – it canceled February’s three bid openings – and doesn’t have enough money to proceed with new projects unless early funding is approved.

“We’re at a standstill right now,” he said.

Office of Management and Budget Director Pam Sharp also offered amendments to the bill that would add $20 million in early funding for the state’s Housing Incentive Fund, $2 million for the Department of Health to hire environmental scientists and $1 million to hire Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agents. Those funds also had been part of the governor’s jumpstart bill, and similar proposed amendments were rejected before the Senate passed the bill 44-2 on Jan. 29.

“The sex trafficking and the drug trafficking in western North Dakota are at critical stages,” Sharp said. “We need new BCI agents out there as soon as possible.”

No action was taken on the amendments.

Rep. Jon Nelson, R-Rugby, raised the concern that House amendments could require a conference committee with the Senate, slowing the bill’s progress.

“I think that’s a consideration we need to look at seriously,” Nelson said.

The committee’s chairman, Rep. Jeff Delzer, said he “can’t imagine any way we could have a conference committee” before the bill crossover date of Feb. 27, and that House members will visit with senators before approving any amendments.

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Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, indicated the Senate may be open to amendments such as returning the $300 million to the DOT’s budget, though he added they want the early funding.

“There’s no question, the earlier you get those bids out, the cheaper the project,” he said.

As for the letter, Wardner said he had heard from western officials who didn’t think it was necessary, and that he had the information on their needs.

“They’ve justified them on paper, and they’re justified by going there and taking a first-hand look at the situation,” he said.

If western officials had frustrations about the letter, they didn’t voice them to the committee.

Watford City Mayor Brent Sanford began his testimony by thanking the committee “for jumping on this bill so quickly.” He went through the letter’s questions one by one, explaining how the city lowered its mill levy to limit tax increases on residents as the taxable value on a typical residential property increased 233 percent since 2008.

“We feel like we’re following the intentions of the Legislature,” he said.

Williston Mayor Howard Klug said the projects supported by the surge funding will provide a base for the oil and gas industry and help the city catch up with infrastructure needs. He stressed the importance of doing projects sooner rather than later, giving the example of the city wastewater plant project that was estimated at $65 million five years ago but ended up costing $120 million.

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“We assure you that it will be spent wisely,” he said. “The earlier we get the bids out, the more competitive it will be.”

Reach Nowatzki at (701) 255-5607 or by email at mnowatzki@forumcomm.com .

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