Dalrymple: No special session for Oil Patch
BISMARCK — Gov. Jack Dalrymple will not call state lawmakers to Bismarck for a special session to address needs in booming western North Dakota, his office announced Monday.
Top legislative Democrats called for a special session in late February for infrastructure needs and other improvements, saying many feared the communities and counties in North Dakota’s Oil Patch were “reaching the breaking point.”
But Dalrymple said in a news release he is “confident that the state can provide the assistance needed to help the oil and gas region address the impacts of rapid growth” and hold off on extra legislative measures until the Legislature convenes next year.
In an interview, Dalrymple said he was confident in that decision after reaching out to mayors and commissioners in oil-producing cities and counties to learn about their needs and concerns. After considering those needs and the resources the state could provide, he said it was clear there were no immediate fixes necessary.
Instead, Dalrymple and top Republicans in the Legislature say they will hit the ground running when the 2015 session gavels in on Jan. 6 to make some quick changes and further aid the municipalities stretched thin by the booming Bakken.
North Dakota’s Legislature meets once every two years. It has been called into special session just 14 times in the 125 years of North Dakota’s statehood, most recently in November 2011 when it approved millions in spending for flood relief and oil-impacted counties during a five-day session with limited staff that cost $228,000, according to the Legislative Council.
Williston Mayor Ward Koeser said he hoped for a special session — without some additional funding early in 2015, the city won’t be able to move ahead on a full slate of construction projects set to start later that year.
But he also worried: “If the Legislature did that, then would they still have been willing to go back in the regular session and help us again?”
“We just know we need help,” Koeser said. “We’re going to trust the governor’s judgment and make the best of it.”
The 2013 Legislature appropriated about $2.5 billion to address needs associated with rapid growth in the west, including $590 million in oil and gas production tax allocations, more than $1.5 billion for highway improvement projects and $240 million from the state’s oil and gas impact grant fund.
Thanks to oil and gas production taxes coming in over projections, cities and counties in the Oil Patch will receive at least $120 million more than anticipated in revenues.
Dalrymple highlighted several moves the state has made since the Legislature adjourned in April 2013 to provide local leaders in western North Dakota with “a bridge to the upcoming 2015 session.”
Namely, the State Water Commission provided an extra $32 million in cost-share grants for water supply projects and the Industrial Commission established a new loan program at the Bank of North Dakota to help finance public infrastructure projects.
Dickinson Mayor Dennis Johnson said those changes helped secure an additional $18 million in financing for city projects.
“Cash-wise, we see how we can get into the next legislative session,” Johnson said.
Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider, one of several Democrats who sent a Feb. 24 letter to Dalrymple requesting a special session, said the governor’s office’s interim measures mitigated some of the challenges in western North Dakota, but he still believes a special session could have helped get the state “caught up” on the oil boom’s impact out west.
Schneider hoped to focus on two things in a special session: repealing a sunset clause on the state’s oil and gas tax distribution and starting to iron out changes to that formula to send more money to oil-impacted areas. Making those changes in the spring would allow the Legislature to pivot to long-term planning for western North Dakota, he said.
“Instead, we’re going to be focusing on catching up when we start the 2015 session rather than getting ahead,” he said.
Dalrymple and Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, both said they’re confident they can repeal the sunset clause in early January, allowing cities and counties to fund projects next summer.
But the discussion of altering the tax distribution formula is better fit for a regular session, Dalrymple said.
Johnson and Koeser both commended Dalrymple for listening to their concerns.
“The governor and his staff have worked hard since late last year to get a better understanding of the impacts, and the cost of the impacts, all up and down the Bakken. The impact,” he said, pausing to search for words, “is pretty severe.”