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Mike Nowatzki, Forum News Service, Published February 24 2014

'We cannot wait': Democrats seek special session to address western N.D. needs

BISMARCK – Democratic-NPL Party lawmakers asked Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple on Monday to call a special legislative session to address infrastructure and other needs facing counties and cities in North Dakota’s Oil Patch.

“We cannot wait until the 2015 session to address these challenges,” House Minority Leader Kenton Onstad of Parshall and Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider of Grand Forks stated in a letter sent Monday morning.

A statement from Dalrymple’s office Monday afternoon said he will take the letter under advisement and intends to talk with legislators from both parties about what can be accomplished for oil country in the short term, “whether it is administratively or through legislative action.

“The governor has been working with mayors and other western officials on solutions to challenges impacting the oil and gas region and he is open to a variety of options that could gain general support,” the statement read.

The letter to Dalrymple from Democrats also was signed by Sen. John Warner of Ryder, who with Onstad represents District 4, which is affected by oil and gas development.

The three legislators contend that current state funding is failing to keep up with the pace of development.

“The affected western counties do not think that the current funding level is adequate to meet the demand for services they are facing,” the letter stated. “Impacted cities are reaching their bonding limits and are increasingly frustrated with lack of assistances to adequately fund development projects. … If present state funding levels do not change, many local leaders and residents fear that western North Dakota may never catch up to the pace of oil and gas development.”

Onstad said in the news release that Democrats don’t take their request for a special session lightly, but that the state doesn’t have any other choice.

“There are many in western North Dakota who are afraid that their communities and counties are reaching the breaking point,” he said. “If we don’t act now, we’re jeopardizing the financial solvency of many western counties, cities and school districts and we’re putting future oil and gas development at risk.”

Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said that with the next regular session only about 10 months away – the 2015 Legislature convenes Jan. 6 – he doesn’t believe a special session is necessary.

“I believe that we’ll be able to respond in an appropriate time at the beginning of next session and we’ll be able to take care of them,” he said.

Wardner said the big concern he heard at a meeting in Bismarck last week between local government leaders from western North Dakota, lawmakers and others was whether resources will be available to fund the 2015 construction season.

“And if we get the money appropriated early in the session, we will be able to do that,” he said.

Onstad said cities and counties don’t have enough money to complete projects they’re planning to tackle this year, and holding a special session in May would allow the Legislature to provide funding to finish them.

Otherwise, “All you’re doing is pushing back these projects another year,” he said in a phone interview. “That’s the frustration that they’re telling me.”

Another frustration voiced by city and county officials at last Wednesday’s “Western Conversation” in Bismarck was that a sunset clause placed on the state’s current formula for sharing oil and gas gross production tax revenues with local political subdivisions has been a roadblock as they try to borrow money from bonding agencies for projects.

“We need to address that,” Onstad said, adding he’s also drafting legislation that would give political subdivisions a greater share of the tax revenue.

The Legislature last met in special session in November 2011, approving millions in spending for flood relief and oil-impacted counties. During the five-day session, they also voted to repeal the state law that required the University of North Dakota to keep its Fighting Sioux nickname and voted against creating a state-run health insurance exchange.