Operation Prairie Dog could determine infrastructure future

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an agricultural state in possession of a good fortune must be in want of improved infrastructure. That is the thought process behind the 66th North Dakota State Legislature’s House Bill No. 1066 or, as it has been nicknamed, Operation Prairie Dog.

Posted 12/27/18

By Melissa Anderson

The bill, which was slated to be fast-tracked through the session until the results of the November election, had then House Majority Speaker Al Carson of Fargo losing his seat. The Republican party elected a new majority speaker for the first time in 10 years, handing the reins of leadership to Chet Pollert of Carrington, who has shown no indication of fast-tracking the bill.

While the state will still be taking the majority of the revenue at 70 percent, and oil and gas counties receiving their 30 percent, it is how the new bill structures and amends funding to other areas of the state that is bringing support en masse.

Cavalier County Commissioner Stanley Dick supports the bill in its current form and intends to travel to the state legislature to testify in support of it.

“I think it’s very important, first of all, because the geography for the state of North Dakota has not changed. We have infrastructure needs from corner to corner because we are an agricultural state. Agricultural is still number one,” Dick said. Dick points out that many in the farming field utilize semi trucks to transport their crops. As the semi trucks get heavier and the farm equipment gets larger, the roads so imperative for the livelihood of these communities can no longer handle the burden.

“Ninety to ninety-five percent of our farmers run semis, so our roads that are not designed for semis deteriorate at a higher rate than they used to because of our heavy trucks,” Dick said.

The bill in its current version does much for not only oil country but also for those counties that are still agricultural based. The oil producing counties and hub cities of Williston, Dickinson, and Minot will continue to receive their fair share of funding for infrastructure as well as a needed boost going from 1 percent to 4 percent stream of tax revenue. The legislation has two sections for funding. For the oil producing counties, they will receive $5 million to meet their needs and, depending on the price of oil, even more could be accrued to assist. Hub cities as well are in line to receive additional funding if oil revenues are high enough.

“Permanent funding based on 1.2 million barrels a day production and $52 a barrel. Now if we go below those thresholds… there is a formula in funding permanently that we get a percentage of that depending on where the price of oil is,” Dick explained.

Non-oil producing counties, townships, and cities could see a distribution of up to $280 million for infrastructure projects in the second year of the upcoming biennium. Counties receiving less than $5 million in funding from this legislation, which is the majority of the state including Cavalier County, will fair well on the proposed funding set up. Currently, the legislation has the counties receiving 45 percent, cities 20 percent, and schools 35 percent. Townships themselves will also benefit by receiving thousands of dollars that could provide much needed relief to their budgets.

“With a lot of our townships, we just can’t maintain what we need to maintain. It’s also very important for the county as well. We are already at the 10 mill excess now. We can’t raise more than a 10 mill excess for our infrastructure needs. Because of our vast miles in Cavalier County, which is agriculture, we need help,” Dick said.

As a county commissioner in a highly rural area, Dick believes this bill holds a lot of promise for providing financial security for infrastructure planning for counties.

“The permanent funding of it, based on certain parameters, is a good deal. This not knowing from legislative session to legislative session if there is even anything in there [isn’t helpful],”Dick stated.

The population for Cavalier County is rural and agricultural making the bill much needed in order to meet the needs and demands that the Commission struggles with to fund and prioritize projects.

District 10 State Senator Janne Myrdal worked extensively behind the scenes leading up to this bill being filed for the upcoming session. From meetings being held leading up to the start of the session on January 3, Myrdal is hopeful that the bill will find its way to the governor’s desk and be signed.

“I support the bill as it stands and will fight tooth and nail to raise those ‘buckets’,” Myrdal said.

Leading into the session, there is some concern that Governor Doug Burgum may not be in support of the bill. In his preliminary budget released in December, Burgum has proposed $1.5 billion in infrastructure projects including roads, water and information technology. These projects are all separate from Operation Prairie Dog.

“The governor’s budget is a blueprint for the budget which the legislature has final say over. There is going to be more tension this session than last. It’s west against east, urban against rural ,” Myrdal said.

The state, just like many counties, townships, and cities, is trying to trim funding and re-structure budgets while still providing the necessary revenue to support its citizens.

“We need help to keep our roads in a condition to handle heavy traffic. Basically, we need help, but we are going backwards. It’s one of the reasons why it’s so important we keep up with our legislaturers so they understand,” Dick said.

Dick advises residents that this is one bill that should be followed as it progresses through the legislature.

“Bottom line is we need to track it and hopefully get some kind of permanency for our infrastructure needs.”