Senate committee considers infrastructure 'surge funding' to oil patch, cities, schools

IndustriesAssociated Press

Officials from western North Dakota's oil-producing region pleaded with lawmakers Friday to expedite hundreds of millions of dollars in special funding so that infrastructure projects can begin by this summer.

"We will not have a construction season without this surge money," Mountrail County Commissioner Greg Boschee told the Senate Appropriations Committee, which helps write the two-year budget for North Dakota state government. "It has to be done early or the construction season in 2015 won't happen."

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Boschee's appeal was a familiar one: The Legislature has been playing catch-up for at least the three previous sessions in trying to address North Dakota's exploding growth. Many have argued that funding for western North Dakota's oil-producing counties in recent years hasn't come close to meeting the needs for such things as road building and repair, utilities, housing and schools.

About 150 people packed the Capitol's biggest meeting room to testify on competing proposals that would fast-track funding to cities, school districts and communities.

One measure is an $845 million "surge funding" bill sponsored by Sen. Kelly Armstrong, R-Dickinson. The other is Gov. Jack Dalrymple's "jump-start" bill that is pegged at $873 million and part of his overall $3.7 billion proposal to help western North Dakota's oil-producing region address its rapid growth.

Dalrymple also has responded to calls from Democrats and officials in oil-producing counties to change the formula used to distribute oil and gas production tax revenue in favor of local governments. The fund currently sets aside 75 percent to the state and 25 percent to local governments; Dalrymple is pushing a 60-40 split in favor of local governments.

The key difference in the fast-track funding bills is the amount of money that would be spent on state highways. The governor's bill sets aside $450 million for state roads. The bill by Armstrong, whose district is within the state's oil patch, gives no money to state highways but directs all funding to cities, counties, school districts and to communities outside the oil region.

Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told The Associated Press that elements of both bills might be combined. "We will only have one bill," he said.

Armstrong said his proposal "at its heart, is a local roads and infrastructure bill."

"We can and must deal with the infrastructure problem to ensure continued economic success for our state," he told fellow lawmakers.

Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, spoke in favor of Armstrong's bill, saying increased funding for counties in the oil region "is our No. 1 priority this session."

"It is imperative that we take care of these impacted communities," said Ness, whose group represents more than 550 companies that employ 65,000 workers in the state's oil patch.

Several mayors and other officials from western North Dakota traveled across the state to appeal to lawmakers Friday.

Williston Mayor Howard Klug said his city, like most in the region, has millions of dollars of shovel-ready projects in the works and communities are counting on the funding to get started on them quickly.

"Make us whole," Klug told lawmakers. "And we will provide an industry that will support the state of North Dakota for 40 years."