Posted 4/17/13 (Wed)
By Neal A. Shipman
Stunned and devastated.
Those two words accurately describe the reaction that Watford City and McKenzie County leaders expressed following action by the North Dakota Senate on Friday, April 5 in stripping away $417 million from House Bill 1358. The loss of that direct assistance to oil-impacted communities and counties in western North Dakota will have a profound impact on area law enforcement, health care facilities and emergency responders.
“I hear the desperation daily from citizens regarding all aspects of their lives,” states Brent Sanford, Watford City mayor. “These oil-impacted communities need to receive our fair share of the oil taxes generated in our backyards, on our roads, on our streets.”
According to Sanford, the Senate cut $50 million in assistance to the hub cities and $15 million from the hub cities’ school districts. But the biggest impact of the cuts will be the loss of $45 million to emergency services, fire departments and sheriff departments, as well as $37 million that was earmarked for smaller cities, like Watford City, and $16 million that would have gone to hospitals and long-term care facilities in the oil-patch.
“Our civic institutions are bending under the pressure of five to 10 times more people than they can handle,” states Sanford. “We can’t continue to be shorted in our efforts to partner with the state and the oil industry in handling this oil impact appropriately.”
According to Sanford, HB 1358 was a comprehensive oil impact funding bill that brought together hub cities, smaller cities, counties, townships, schools, sheriff departments, EMS, fire districts, and health care facilities from the 17 oil-producing counties.
“We all accepted less than we individually needed, for the good of the whole, to come to a version of this bill that eventually passed in the House with only eight dissenting votes,” states Sanford. “We are so grateful to Rep. Bob Skarphol from Tioga for his tireless efforts in crafting and sponsoring this historic legislation.”
But according to Sanford, something happened as the bill sat in the Senate Finance and Tax Committee for a month.
“Other bills were passed and the money started to run short,” says Sanford. “With the tax relief bills still on the table, evidently $250 million was needed to help in those efforts, so the big one that had been left to rot in the corner took the brunt.”
For Ron Anderson, chairman of the McKenzie County Commissioners, the Senate’s action defied understanding.
“HB 1358 was well thought out,” stated Anderson. “It was a good bill for this part of the state.”
According to Anderson, the four counties of McKenzie, Mountrail, Williams and Dunn have 85 percent of the state’s oil production, and with the Senate slicing $417 million from HB 1358, these counties are going to pay the price.
“These four counties are really losing money because of what the Senate did,” states Anderson. “Instead of there being $60 million going to just these four counties, that money is now going to be split between 10 oil-producing counties.”
“Watford City desperately needs the money,” states Anderson. “We’ve got to get the money back. Things need to be fixed up out here. This is where we need the money.”
Likewise, District 39 legislators were stunned by the Senate’s actions. But while the money was stripped from the bill, Reps. David Drovdal and Keith Kempenich and Sen. Bill Bowman are hopeful that the funds will be restored in one manner or another.
“I expected to see some adjustments made to HB 1358,” stated Drovdal. “But I was shocked at the cuts that were made. The changes were massive.”
While Drovdal is confident that significant portions of the funding will be restored, he says that if they aren’t, the impact will be felt across western North Dakota.
“Everyone in western North Dakota is going to be a loser if this money isn’t restored,” says Drovdal. “We aren’t going to be able to take of the needs of law enforcement, ambulance services or the cities and counties. It is going to affect our quality of life.”
Drovdal also noted that other state legislators are also expressing their concerns over the Senate’s actions and hopes that the campaign promises will be met.
“Everyone ran saying that they were going to help with the infrastructure and other needs in the west,” stated Drovdal. “Now it’s time for them to do it.”
Rep. Kempenich also expressed his frustration at the loss of the money to western North Dakota. But like Drovdal, he is optimistic that the majority of the funding will be restored.
“It’s frustrating,” states Kempenich. “HB 1358, which was designed to dedicate a percentage of the oil and gas revenues to oil-impacted areas, was supported by all the western legislators. Now it is going to be done piece-meal.”
While Kempenich is doubtful that all of the money cut will be restored in the original bill, he does believe that the money will be placed into state agency budgets to be funneled back to the oil-impacted cities and counties.
Bowman shares Drovdal and Kempenich’s belief that a good portion of the funds will be restored, but he feels, at the end of the day, only $1 billion is going to end up helping western North Dakota.
“The cuts were hard to take and especially devastating to the fast growing areas like Watford City,” stated Bowman. “But we’re not going to give up the battle.”
Bowman, who serves as the co-vice chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, says that he is working to make sure the money being restored is targeted to meet the needs of western North Dakota and not being lost in agency bills.
“We’ve got to satisfy the needs out there,” states Bowman. “It’s got to be either direct aid or in the impact grant funds.”
While Bowman says that HB 1358 is going to be one of the last bills that is going to come out of this legislative session, he predicts that the majority of the funds will be restored.
“We shouldn’t have to fight this hard for the money,” states Bowman. “Especially when these counties are putting all the money into the general fund.”