Legislative updates given at Farm Bureau forum held in Linton
About 60 people attended the Emmons County Farm Bureau Legislative Forum held at the Linton Community Center last Friday evening. The five panelists were District 28 Senator Robert Erbele, Representatives William Kretschmar and Mike Brandenberg, State Farm Bureau Board member Wes Klein and FB lobbyist Tom Bodine.
The event opened with ECFB president Ken Vander Vorst of Pollock, S.D., introducing the panelists. The session began with an opening statement by Senator Erbele.
“You may have questions today that we don’t have answers for but ask them anyway,” he said. “We will write them down, and we will get you the answers. That’s part of our job. And that’s my disclaimer at the beginning.”
Erbele said every session has its own feel to it, and this year was especially different— dealing with growth.
“Past sessions we talked about how to stop the decline and how do we deal with declining enrollment. Since the last session we’ve increased by 50,000 people in the state,” he said.
That has created a whole new set of challenges including a growing state government but also a need to provide many more services, and that can be extremely frustrating, he noted. For example, a biennium ago, more than $60 million was appropriated for an addition to the state prison.
“The way the population has spiked in there, we’re going to be full by the next biennium,” mostly because of what is happening in the oil patch where more felony crimes are being committed than misdemeanor crimes, Erbele said.
A transportation bill to provide $120 million for equipment for the DOT in addition to another $100 million for townships and counties is being fast-tracked because funds are needed to maintain roads being destroyed by heavy traffic, not only in oil country itself but to areas affected by heavy through-traffic heading to and from oil country.
Rep. Kretschmar spoke of the length of time he has been in the Legislature—when he came on board the district included Emmons and McIntosh counties. Today, District 28 spans Emmons and McIntosh County and parts of Burleigh, Logan, Dickey and LaMoure counties—from Ellendale to the east, west to the Missouri River and north to Sterling and the Menoken area. He said the Legislature needs people with institutional memory to remember what was done years ago.
“It’s good to have some veterans and some new,” he said, and we have a good mix.”
Kretschmar, who serves on the Judiciary Committee, said District Courts are getting behind, especially in western North Dakota.
“There’s a lot of work for them (the 42 judges),” and there is now a proposal to increase that number to 45, he explained.
County commissioners have requested an increase in funds for renting county equipment, and Kretschmar, who also serves on the political subdivisions committee, said he believes that bill should go through “handily.”
“Just this afternoon we defeated a bill that would have changed when public schools start,” he said.
The bill wasn’t liked by many of the school people, Kretschmar said, so the House decided not to tamper with it and let local school boards determine when they wanted to begin school in the fall.
Presently, most of the legislative work consists of preparation of bills in committee. In three or four weeks, the bills will be coming out of committee, and most of the work will be on the floor as bills are debated and voted on. The first week in March all the House bills will pass over to the Senate, and Senate bills will pass over to the House for review. Anyone having a special interest in any of the bills is asked to call, email or write the Legislators soon—before it gets really busy.
The House has passed the DOT budget on to the Senate. Rep. Brandenberg said a big concern is how to get money back to townships and counties as well as to the state. In last session, much of the funding went to the western part of state. A Great Plains study was done to determine transportation costs for the next biennium, and non-oil counties will have access to funds which are being directed into the state infrastructure.
“We have money,” he said. “Our role is to do something to benefit all the people.”
A critical bridges study is being conducted with $90 million being considered for bridges in the state. With a $1.5 billion carryover, Brandenberg said it’s difficult to get all that money to the right places without some fights.
“We’re seeing some problems,” he said. “We’ll do our best to address that.”
Wetlands, agriculture and animal welfare are all on agenda.Animal shelter people had told them the measure voted on in the last election was not a good bill. The legislature has asked for their input in coming up with what should be an appropriate bill that would protect animals. It is almost certain the bill will pass.
Questions and Answers: (A compilation of all of their comments)
Q: Have you appropriated funds to help Minot State University recover from the flooding? BSC and UND did not receive aid after floods in their areas.
A: The Legislature has addressed MSU’s problems and suggested to the president that the school make temporary cutbacks for at least the next three years to work through their funding problems.
Oil was a big part of the discussion.
Q: Concerns about flaring, the need to save natural gas and U.S. oil going overseas.
A: It was stated that the state oil industry is one EPA regulation away from being shut down completely. “To the oil companies’ credit, they have 500 potential wells that they are not acting on. The problem is there is a time line on drilling permits and if those expire, the costs will go through the roof.” Another problem is it all “happened so fast.” In 1998 there were eight oil rigs in the state. Now there are about 185. There are about 4,575 wells today with a potential for another 35-40,000 wells in the next few years. On the world stage, economies, including China, are struggling. Oil prices will drop.
Agriculture is carrying the state and we’re having good times but if the extraction tax goes off, this $1.5 billion in surplus will not be there. As for oil going overseas—the state does not regulate where the oil is shipped. “That is the oil companies’ business.”
Q: Lack of refineries in the United States.
A: Wes Klein—No refineries have been built in the U.S. since 1979. An example of the reason why: the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit against an oil company in Sioux Falls. They lost easements they had for land to build a refinery. Now they have to start all over. But there is a whole set of environmental organizations lined up behind the Sierra Club. The audience was told that Government cannot fix all problems out there. Communities must plan ahead to help themselves. For instance, city and county entities in oil country did not plan ahead, and many still have not set up regulations to deal with traffic and housing problems. As an example, Klein said in 2006 the city of Killdeer had oil trucks and water trucks driving through Main Street. Instead of addressing that problem, the city wanted $3.5 million from the State of North Dakota to build a recreation center and a road to it. Today (2012) one truck drives down the main street of Killdeer every 15 seconds.
Klein said the state does not fix those problems. Those problems have to be fixed locally.
“It would have been a whole lot easier for the city of Killdeer, along with the county commission, state commission, their zoning commission, to build a bypass around Killdeer. Where were they at? We’ve created the problems ourselves,” Klein said. “It isn’t right now for all that money to be going up there when you have a highway out here (Highway 83) that’s developed pot holes from all the trucks coming out of South Dakota. They’re hauling oil pipe to Williston. You guys are suffering from that, but it’s not the governor and legislature that you have to ask. You have to ask locally... what are your county commissioners... what is being done now to take care of the problem?”
Klein cited individual counties in western North Dakota— some that did plan ahead; others that did not.
On the plus side:
Brandenberg: “I was in Williston this past summer on a tour... and looked at man camps.” The man camps had very strict rules: no drinking, no smoking, rules for keeping clean (such as taking shoes off before entering). Very well regulated.
He spoke of housing needs that could benefit our own local area and said a half dozen new families (with school age children) live in Edgeley. They are in Edgeley because they could not find (affordable) housing in oil country but Edgeley is still close enough for the oil worker to finish his two weeks on the job, come back to be with his family in Edgeley for two weeks, then return to his job.
“What I’m trying to say,” Brandenberg said, “is good things happen in Williston, too. Nice new homes, and the one thing I’ve seen in that city that I haven’t seen anywhere else in North Dakota—brand new churches. Our churches are not going empty. I was really impressed.”
He agreed there are some problems but “right now, those people want to move here with their families, and they want to find a home, churches are overflowing, prayer services, they’re building churches. They’re not all bad people. The news reports on crime in western North Dakota. That’s what you see on 60 Minutes instead of talking about the churches that are being built and the new homes that are being built and the people that are coming there and looking for a way to make a living.”
He asked, “If they came here, would we be ready for them?” and answered his own question “I don’t think so,” but we sure would like to have more kids in our schools and churches.
Q: Touch on our forgotten industry—the coal industry— and are they going to do anything with that at all?
A: Same thing. EPA wants to determine quality of air and water, trying to shut down the coal industry.
“We were on the slow track. We’ll be on the fast track now for environmental issues,” the audience was told.
Lobbyist Tom Bodine is familiar with Basin Electric. He reported that 8 million tons of coal a year (seven 110-car unit trains a day) is shipped to China from the Powder River Basin in Montana because regulations don’t allow them to burn coal there (Montana). He said Basin spent $22 million on environmental lawsuits when they built their last power plant to power the Dry Fork Mine north of Gillette, Wyo. The Sierra Club is also threatening a lawsuit against the MDU Heskett Station north of Mandan because of environmental issues. Basin said it will close down the plant if that happens.
Q: Discussion on House bill 2200, introduced after Measure 5 concerning animal rights was defeated by 65 percent of North Dakota voters in the last election. The measure would have made it a Class C felony for an individual to intentionally harm a dog, cat or horse.
A: Advocates for SB 2200 adamantly said they voted down Measure 5 because it did not cover every animal with the right forms of penalties. The State Ag Department is writing the rules for the animal rights bill after the bill is passed.Animal care standards will be developed on care, abuse, cruelty and abandonment. The bill is in the Senate Ag committee.
Kretschmar explained, “We have laws on the books that allow executive branch agencies like the tax department, ag department, etc. to write rules. But in North Dakota, when rules are written, they have to go to the LegislatureAdministrative Rules Committee. They look over the rules to see that they comply with the laws that have passed. If they do not, they work with the department to modify or change the rules or the legislative committee can suspend the rules. That’s one of the checks and balances we have in North Dakota, and it’s working pretty well.”
Q: Measure 2 defeated property tax relief. How do you feel about adjustments to property tax? They can lower mill levies but appraisals can still go up. What is coming up for property tax relief?
A: All agreed it was a “real tough one.” It’s a balancing act—funding is needed for roads, streets, schools.
Agriculture is still contributing three times more to state coffers than oil. Everyone mentions ”property tax reform.” This biennium already provided $341 million in property tax relief that went out to the schools.
In the next biennium, $400 million has been put aside for property tax relief.
“If we didn’t have that— then what are you ready to give up?” It was noted that we don’t know what land is worth anymore. When it sells, that price is only good until the next sale. Is it reasonable to expect to pay less tax on land that is now worth double or more of what it was?
“If you know what reform looks like, I’d like to discuss that with you,” it was stated.
Other issues discussed were funding for schools, hunting and fishing fees, posting land and concerns about rules of the Game and Fish Department and Corps of Engineers that affect the rural community.