Posted 4/10/13 (Wed)
By Neal A. Shipman
“Trust us. The money will come together.”
And with those assurances from several of its members, by a 26-19 vote last Friday, the North Dakota Senate dealt an absolutely unbelievable blow to western North Dakota by cutting $417 million in much needed financial assistance from House Bill 1358.
As I expressed last week in this column, I was very optimistic that the North Dakota Legislature was finally going to create a mechanism by which a small portion of the oil revenues that were being generated in the oil patch would be returned to the cities and the counties that most desperately needed the money to meet the demands of a growing population.
But apparently, some North Dakota senators don’t see the need. Or at least they don’t see the need to help struggling cities, like Watford City, Williston, Stanley and Tioga, build the water and sewer lines and the city streets needed to take care of the thousands of new people that are moving into their communities. And apparently, they don’t see the need to help counties, like McKenzie, Williams, Mountrail and Dunn, build and maintain the roads that are being pulverized every year by the oilfield traffic or meet their other infrastructure needs.
Nor do they apparently see the need for state financial help that was originally included as part of HB 1358 for school districts, critical access hospitals, ambulance services and sheriff’s departments that are dealing with the unprecedented challenges that all of them are facing because of oil impacts.
If the state of North Dakota was in trouble financially, maybe there would have been some justification for the North Dakota Senate to slash nearly one-third of the funding from House Bill 1358. But lack of funds is not the case. Oil-producing counties, like McKenzie, Williams, Mountrail and Dunn, are pouring record levels of oil and gas revenue into the state’s coffers monthly. And thanks to the state’s oil-producing counties, North Dakota’s Legacy Fund, which was created in September of 2011 and receives 30 percent of the state’s oil tax collections, is now nearing $1 billion in assets.
So while these oil-impacted cities and counties are struggling to keep pace with the rapid growth that is benefitting everyone in the state, the North Dakota Senate isn’t sure that they want the money to be used here.
Call me cynical, if you will. But I find it hypocritical that some of these same senators who voted to slash funds for western North Dakota last Friday had only a few days earlier approved tapping into the oil and gas receipts to fund a $30 million per biennium expenditure to create an outdoor heritage fund.
Don’t get me wrong, I like wildlife. And I like parks and recreation. But there is something terribly wrong in the Senate’s logic of these two votes. “Yes” to helping wildlife. But “No” to cities, counties, school districts, hospitals, ambulance services, fire departments and law enforcement enforcement agencies that are reeling to stay afloat in the oil patch.
The action of the North Dakota Senate in gutting HB 1358 defies logic, especially when the House had earlier passed the bill on an 82-8 vote.
The clock is definitely ticking down as legislators try to wrap up this session by the end of the month, so let’s hope that calmer heads will prevail over the next couple of weeks and that full funding of HB 1358 will be restored.
After all, they did promise us that the money would be returned.