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North Dakota senators pass water budget bill amid speculation over Burgum veto

Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney speaks during a press conference with area officials Wednesday, April 17, in Reed Township Hall north of West Fargo to discuss state of North Dakota funding for the Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion project. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor 1 / 2
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum pitched funding for the Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion to a state Senate committee at the state Capitol Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019. John Hageman / Forum News Service2 / 2

BISMARCK — North Dakota senators advanced a large budget bill funding water projects across the state Thursday, April 18, amid speculation Gov. Doug Burgum is considering vetoing the package because it doesn't meet his request for the Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion.

Meanwhile, Burgum "chewed" out Fargo's mayor over his mixed messages on the project's funding, according to emails obtained by Forum News Service.

The Republican governor has asked lawmakers to boost the state's long-term commitment for the massive flood protection project to $870 million, but a House-Senate panel landed at a $750 million compromise Wednesday. The Senate passed the bill Thursday in a 36-11 vote.

Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said Burgum hasn't told him directly that he's weighing a veto. But he said lawmakers are pushing the legislation now in case that happens.

"The idea would be that we would get it back for an override before we leave," Wardner said.

House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, said he plans to hold a vote Friday and "let the chips fall where they may." Friday will mark Day 71 of the 2019 session, which is capped at 80 days.

Burgum's spokesman, Mike Nowatzki, declined to comment on the possibility of a veto but said the governor is "closely monitoring" the bill. On Wednesday, he said Burgum's support "for the $870 million intent language to keep the overall project cost down is unwavering."

But Fargo Republican Rep. Thomas Beadle, a diversion backer and member of the House Appropriations Committee, said statements from Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney make it less likely that the governor will pick up his veto pen. In emails to lawmakers Wednesday, the mayor said they would work with the $750 million and come back next session to fill the $120 million gap.

That conflicted with statements later made by Mary Scherling, a Cass County commissioner who chairs the Diversion Authority board. In a Wednesday press conference, she urged lawmakers to reject the bill containing $750 million in diversion funds and send it back to conference committee.

"The comments by the mayor eliminated some of the concern and therefore it took away some of the urgency to move north of $750 million," Beadle said.

Republican Rep. Jim Schmidt, a House budget-writer who has expressed skepticism over the diversion's price tag, said project planners "can make $750 million work." He was a member of the House-Senate conference committee that bumped up the state's commitment from the $703 million that lawmakers had supported earlier this session.

Mahoney later backtracked and emphasized in messages to lawmakers that the Diversion Authority still supports an $870 million commitment, warning that the funding gap creates an "increased risk of needing to tap the special assessment district." He apologized to Beadle Wednesday evening and said he "got chewed by the governor" over his initial message.

Beadle's response showed he and others were gathering support to sustain a veto but "that took the rug out from under us."

Mahoney's emails were obtained via an open records request from Forum News Service. He deferred to a city spokesman when reached by phone Thursday afternoon.

In emailed responses sent through the spokesman, Mahoney said "any additional discussion related to changing the financial plan for the project is premature until final action has been taken in Bismarck" and after discussions with advisors. He said the intent of the special assessment district is to act as a financial backstop to sales taxes approved by voters to secure better bonding terms.

Mahoney said he has "always been fully supportive" of the Diversion Authority's request for $870 million from the state.

"After the first email was sent, I heard from DA board members, legislators and the governor that led to the need to clarify my email" he said. "My follow up emails were meant to clarify this support for $870M."

Nowatzki said Burgum "was very disappointed that the mayor, without Diversion Authority approval, communicated to legislators that it wasn’t necessary for the intent language to include the full $870 million needed to hold down project costs and avoid significant property tax increases."

The state's commitment currently stands at $570 million, but project backers sought more support after total costs grew to $2.75 billion. The higher price tag was due to delays and design changes meant to satisfy Minnesota officials, who granted a permit late last year.

On Wednesday, Diversion Authority spokesman Rocky Schneider said the full funding commitment would help show the public-private partnership, or P3, developer that money will be available to complete the project. Project planners intend to build and maintain the diversion channel west of the metro area using a public-private partnership.

"Regardless of what happens, we're appreciative of all the support we've gotten from the Legislature," Schneider said Thursday. "While it leaves us short of our request and leaves us some difficult decisions to come back locally and try to figure out how to keep moving the project forward, we're appreciative of that."

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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