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Democrats seek special session to address needs in western N.D.

BISMARCK — Democratic-NPL Party lawmakers asked Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple on Monday to call a special legislative session to address infrastructure and other needs facing counties and cities in North Dakota’s Oil Patch.

“We cannot wait until the 2015 session to address these challenges,” House Minority Leader Kenton Onstad of Parshall and Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider of Grand Forks stated in a letter sent to Dalrymple Monday morning.

A statement from Dalrymple’s office Monday afternoon said he will take the letter under advisement and intends to talk with legislators from both parties about what can be accomplished for oil country in the short term, “whether it is administratively or through legislative action.

“The governor has been working with mayors and other western officials on solutions to challenges impacting the oil and gas region and he is open to a variety of options that could gain general support,” the statement read. Dalrymple attended meetings in Washington, D.C., on Monday morning and traveled back to Bismarck afterward and was not available for further comment.

Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said that with the next regular session only about 10 months away — the 2015 Legislature convenes Jan. 6 — a special session isn’t necessary.

“I believe that we’ll be able to respond in an appropriate time at the beginning of next session and we’ll be able to take care of them,” he said.

The letter to Dalrymple from Democrats also was signed by Sen. John Warner of Ryder, who with Onstad represents District 4, which is affected by oil and gas development.

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.

Still, the Democratic lawmakers contend that current state funding is failing to keep up with the pace of development and demand for services in western counties.

“Impacted cities are reaching their bonding limits and are increasingly frustrated with lack of assistances to adequately fund development projects,” the letter stated. “… If present state funding levels do not change, many local leaders and residents fear that western North Dakota may never catch up to the pace of oil and gas development.”

Onstad said Democrats don’t take their request for a special session lightly, but the state doesn’t have any other choice. He said many in western North Dakota fear their communities and counties “are reaching the breaking point.”

“If we don’t act now, we’re jeopardizing the financial solvency of many western counties, cities and school districts and we’re putting future oil and gas development at risk,” he said in a news release.

Wardner said the big concern he heard at a meeting in Bismarck last week between local government leaders from western North Dakota, lawmakers and others was whether resources will be available to fund the 2015 construction season.

“And if we get the money appropriated early in the (2015) session, we will be able to do that,” he said.

Onstad said cities and counties don’t have enough money to complete projects they’re planning to tackle this year, and holding a special session in May would allow the Legislature to provide funding to finish them.

Otherwise, “All you’re doing is pushing back these projects another year,” he said in a phone interview. “That’s the frustration that they’re telling me.”

Another frustration voiced by city and county officials at last Wednesday’s “Western Conversation” in Bismarck was that an expiration date placed on the state’s current formula for sharing oil and gas production tax revenues with local political subdivisions has been a roadblock as they try to borrow money from bonding agencies for projects.

“We need to address that,” Onstad said, adding he’s also drafting legislation that would give political subdivisions a greater share of the production tax revenue.

Rep. David Drovdal, R-Arnegard, said he doesn’t think a special session will happen this late.

“That’s more politically driven,” he said. “That should have been called for six months ago. I hate to see it turned into Democrat against Republican because it’s an issue that needs to be addressed by both parties.”

The Legislature last met in special session in November 2011, approving millions in spending for flood relief and oil-impacted counties. The five-day session with limited staff cost $228,000, according to the North Dakota Legislative Council.

Since statehood, the Legislature has been called into special session 14 times.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.