North Dakota lawmakers question Department of Transportation over $1 million bus deal

Some North Dakota lawmakers are wondering how the state got stuck with a nearly million-dollar bill for buses that were ordered, hardly used and then sold.

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The buses were purchased by the state Department of Transportation several years ago mainly for athletic teams at several of the state's colleges. Republican Ray Holmberg, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, says the motor coaches were eventually sold but the end result was a $984,000 loss.

Holmberg told The Associated Press Tuesday that senators are asking about the Transportation Department's spending habits.

"We said, DOT, at some point you had the option of saying no if you thought they weren't going to cash-flow," Holmberg said. "Do you have no process to judge requests, or do you just agree to everything that people ask you?"

Department spokeswoman Jamie Olson said any agency that wants a vehicle must submit a request to the the department's state fleet with justification as to why they need it.

"If justified, the vehicle is purchased with the understanding the agency will comply with the usage and payment criteria by state fleet," Olson said in a statement to The Associated Press.

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Democratic Rep. Tracy Boe said during a higher education conference committee meeting Tuesday that he has unsuccessfully tried to find out who signed off on the bus deal.

"The beginning of the story is 'once upon a time' and the end is 'happily ever after,' and I'm missing something in the middle," Boe said. "Somebody obviously said this was a good idea."

Added Holmberg, "And someone bought that idea as being good."

The issue came up when the House agreed to cover $700,000 of the losses in its version of the higher education budget bill. The Senate left it out of its measure and opted to "kick the can down the road," Holmberg said. As it stands, the payment will come out of the Transportation Department budget for the next two years.

"There's blame to go around. All the way around," Holmberg said. "Even the Legislature isn't totally free of that because we were the ones who told the campus some years ago that you can't have your own buses and you have to go through this process."