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Operation Prairie Dog hits the crossover hurdle full stride

The 66th North Dakota Legislative session has reached the halfway point as of February 25. The bills that survived to reach this point are now nearly into the century code.

Posted 3/7/19

By Melissa Anderson

“With a near record number of bills submitted and the deadlines seeming short, the time has gone quickly. Still we managed to finish our pre-crossover duties a day early and enjoyed a day longer break than we expected. All in all, the session has gone well so far,” District 10 Representative Chuck Damschen said.

Pieces of legislation that have been of particular interest to rural counties such as Cavalier County, are the bills nicknamed “Operation Prairie Dog.” The bills have so far received significant support in both the House(HB1066) and Senate(SB2275). In the House, HB1066 passed overwhelmingly with an 80 to 12 vote and SB2275 passed with a 45 -0 vote in the Senate.

District 10 Senator Janne Myrdal worked during the interim with the Senate Republican leadership on this legislation and supports it fully.

“I am watching the bill as it goes through this process to make sure amendments do not cause major changes to the original intent. At the end of Session we must balance the budget, and it is certainly not an easy task with the oil and AG commodity prices at such low levels,” Myrdal said.

The North Dakota Association of Counties (NDACo) has been tracking the progress of these bills as well. The NDACo, which provides a legislative update on their blog had the following breakdown to make understanding the bills easy for residents.

Operation Prairie Dog I & II (HB1066)

• This bill was passed much as it was introduced except for moving $400 million in SIIF funding ahead of the non-oil buckets – resulting in a delay in this money flowing to counties and cities until very likely the next biennium.

• It may very well be passed by the Senate in this form to avoid a conference committee.

• A key point for both GPT revenues to counties and the non-oil allocations is that they are a standing, continuing appropriation and, therefore, no longer have a “sunset,” and the funding will continue as proposed if no action is taken by the Legislature.

Operation Prairie Dog III – Infrastructure Financing (SB2275)

• This bill would allow the Bank of ND to bond for up to $500 million to create a low interest loan fund for city and county infrastructure projects.

• Bond payback from Legacy earnings.

• The maximum loan would be $25 million.

• The limitations on county borrowing were amended to allow counties to borrow for up to 20 years (currently 5) without a vote.

“Operation Prairie Dog has tremendous potential in helping to address the infrastructure needs that we have in Dist. 10. This bill will help to fund the replacement of the aging infrastructure needs that we currently have along with building any new infrastructure that our communities may need,” District 10 Representative Dave Monson said.

Myrdal and Damschen were in agreement. Across the state and nation, there is an urgent need to repair or replace crumbling infrastructure. District 10, and specifically Cavalier County, are no different. The Cavalier County Commission addresses infrastructure concerns at every meeting, making these bills passing a major focus point.

“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,” Cavalier County Commissioner Stanley Dick stated in a previous interview concerning the bill.

The urgent need for funding infrastructure projects in rural districts like District 10 has been a rallying point for many state legislators at the session. Monson explained that if HB1066 passes and is signed into law, the City of Langdon could receive up to $387,401, and Cavalier County will receive $1,863,400 for a total of $2,250,801, according to the formula used in the bills, to meet infrastructure needs.

“What that means is the people of Langdon and Cavalier County do not have to pay the $2.2 million towards the building of their infrastructure needs. That is a real savings to the taxpayers,” Monson said.

Monson continued explaining that those tax funds come out of the state’s share of 28 percent of the oil tax collected in the oil rich western counties. For that reason, Monson does think that this bill is somewhat controversial, but since there is something in there for everyone it is going to pass in some way, shape, or form.

“Other infrastructure projects are essential for District 10 and all of North Dakota. This would channel some of the oil extraction tax into a fund that would be used for infrastructure throughout the state. Eastern North Dakota will receive some much-needed funding as the bill stands today,” Damschen said.

Heading into the second half of the session, Myrdal is optimistic but still cautious. As the session moves closer towards its designated end, votes will become tougher.

“The later we get towards the end of Session as both policy and appropriations bills that have taken most debate and time come out of conference committees. The eighty days allotted for our biennium may seem like a long time to be here in Bismarck, however,  to accomplish what is set before us- it is not,” Myrdal stated.

“I don’t know what the final version of the prairie dog bill will be, but as it stands now I believe it will provide some much-needed funding for infrastructure in our counties and townships in District 10,” Damschen said.

Keeping a strong focus on what is good for rural North Dakota is a guiding principle for Myrdal as she casts her votes on legislation. Myrdal believes that legislators for North Dakota are at the session to complete three things: fund North Dakota agencies that serve us all, solve proven problems, and set long-term policies that keep our state funded and solvent.