House rejects Democrats' plea to insert funding for North Dakota PSC rail safety program

North Dakota's Republican-led House on Tuesday rejected a plea by Democrats to restore funding for a state-run rail safety program intended to supplement federal oversight of burgeoning oil train traffic.

The debate came as the House approved the Public Service Commission's two-year, $21.5 million spending bill. The PSC had had requested $972,000 in the next two-year budget cycle to fund the program, which included two rail safety inspectors and a rail safety manager to supplement inspections by the Federal Railroad Administration.

The Senate had unanimously approved the funding in February for the PSC, which regulates sectors from auctioneers to pipelines.

Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak, a Republican, called last year for the creation of the safety program. GOP Gov. Jack Dalrymple also has supported the idea, following a spate of accidents involving North Dakota crude in the U.S. and Canada — including a fiery derailment in the governor's hometown of Casselton.

House budget writers, however, removed the funding last week and sent the measure to the full chamber. Opponents said the program duplicates federal efforts and wouldn't guarantee increased safety.

The measure now returns to the Senate, and its final details are to be worked out by conference committee negotiators appointed by the House and Senate.

A House floor fight came Tuesday after Democrats attempted to restore the funding using a tactic called a minority report, which failed by a 58-35 vote.

"This is our last chance for this body to send a message that we're serious about rail safety," said Fargo Democratic Rep. Ron Guggisberg, who introduced the report.

Guggisberg said trains pass through more than 150 communities in North Dakota, and scores more across the county as the state's crude oil heads to market.

House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, said everyone is concerned about rail safety but the federal government has jurisdiction over train safety and that adding state inspectors isn't "solution to the problem."

"I think we need to separate emotion and politics from policy," he said.

"We know beyond a reasonable doubt that the programs in place are not working," said Rep. Marvin Nelson, D-Rolla. "Every wreck threatens our entire oil industry and threatens this entire state's budget."

Minot GOP Rep. Roscoe Streyle, who carried the report for the majority, said federal inspections have increased in the region and railroads have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to ensure rail lines are safe, including carrying out additional maintenance.

"They have stepped up in a big way," Streyle said. "The entity that has the most to lose in this is the company."

House assistant Democratic leader Corey Mock of Grand Forks countered by saying residents who live near railroad tracks "have just a little bit more skin in the game" than the railroads do.