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Published February 25 2014

Forum editorial: Go slow on special oil session

The notion of a special session of the North Dakota Legislature to address needs in oil country has surface appeal and, in some circles, political appeal. But dig a little deeper and it’s difficult to lend substance to the appeal.

Democratic legislative leaders have been making noises about a special session for months. This week, they formalized the talk with a letter to Gov. Jack Dalrymple, urging him to call a session. The Legislature is scheduled to convene in January, about 10 months from now. The question is: What can a special session accomplish that can’t wait for the regular assembly?

The Democrats’ letter restated broad generalizations that allege oil country communities are on the brink of financial disaster because of the pace of oil and gas development. There is no doubt that oil cities and counties need more help of all kinds, but the suggestion that the financial sky is falling is more Chicken Little stuff than reality. Local governments are stressed as never before, but they have been receiving aid in amounts as never before.

One of the arguments for a special session, possibly in May, is that appropriating more dollars for the Oil Patch sooner than next January will speed public infrastructure construction projects. Sounds good, but it’s not a complete picture. Underlying problems with construction delays are not necessarily shortages of money, but rather go to weather, finding enough workers, and the timetables built into the bidding process. Not much in that scenario will be changed by a May special session.

No one who’s been in oil country disputes that communities there need more help from the state, whether it’s revision of the formula for sharing oil tax revenues or direct appropriations for roads, schools and law enforcement. But keep in mind, the 2013 session appropriated

$2.5 billion for Oil Patch needs. That ain’t pocket change; and, by the way, not all of it has been spent.

Lawmakers are obligated to do what they have been doing: work off reliable and comprehensive assessments of oil country needs. The needs are moving targets that can’t be adequately addressed by a hastily convened special session. There will be time in the early weeks of the regular session to move quickly, if need be, and attach emergency clauses to legislation in order to put it to work right away. Unless a much stronger case can be made for a special session – and that still is a possibility – the governor should say no.

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Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.