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N.D. panels show support for infrastructure spending

FARGO -- Participants at town hall meetings around North Dakota overwhelmingly want to see the state invest more on infrastructure, with housing easily topping the list of needs.

The "North Dakota 2.0" initiative also documented significant support among participants for distributing more of the state's budget surplus to local governments.

The findings of town hall meetings in 14 North Dakota cities will be officially released today with the intent of helping decision-makers chart a better future for a state experiencing rapid oil development and economic growth.

"We need to do something bold with our resources to define the future," said Jasper Schneider, state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development in North Dakota.

"We have the ability right now to really define and develop our future," he told The Forum Editorial Board on Monday.

The list of priorities was varied, with suggestions as diverse as addressing the ballooning cost of higher education, building an oil refinery and revamping the state's tax structure.

Infrastructure broadly defined -- roads, bridges, water and sewer, high-speed Internet -- was the top choice of 67 percent of the 700-plus who participated in the town hall meetings.

"We should develop some sort of comprehensive infrastructure plan going forward," Schneider said.

USDA Rural Development was the leading partner in the North Dakota 2.0 discussions beginning last October in Bismarck that also included state commerce officials and others.

Housing topped the list of infrastructure needs, even beyond the Oil Patch counties that are plagued by skyrocketing rents and a lack of affordable housing.

In a tally of survey responses, 66 percent cited housing as the greatest infrastructure demand in their area, far exceeding the 16 percent who said sewer and water and the 15 percent who said roads and bridges.

When it comes to spending North Dakota's budget surplus, more than half of the town hall participants, 53 percent, favored distributing more funds to local governments.

A little less than half as many, 24 percent, favored spending more on infrastructure.

Besides housing and other infrastructure needs, several other themes emerged from the discussions around the state, including a dozen rural communities:

* Access to health care is a priority, with maintaining emergency medical services commonly cited as a problem, especially in the Oil Patch.

The high cost of health care and addressing the state's aging health-care facilities also were cited as concerns.

* Day care and early child education also were often cited as concerns.

"It's especially critical in the west," said Lee Kaldor of USDA Rural Development, but also a concern in communities like Linton, Oakes and Park River.

"Next to housing it's probably the biggest existing need out there," Schneider said, adding its importance as an economic development tool in supporting working parents.

* Government transparency is important, and technology offers better ways to provide information to constituents and taxpayers.

The report summarizing the town hall meetings will be distributed to legislators, statewide officials and others, including North Dakota's congressional delegation.

"It's not a blueprint for what needs to happen next," Schneider said, though he added that it does provide a baseline expression of public opinion on the state's priorities that should be useful for elected officials.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple has launched a similar effort, the North Dakota 2020 initiative, which also involved public input meetings around the state.

"I look forward to their findings as well," Schneider said. "This is what the people said."

Patrick Springer is a reporter at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.