Lawmakers say Legislature treated Minot well

Minot lawmakers say they are generally satisfied with the work of the 2013 Legislature, which wrapped up last Friday.

There was much to please Minot residents, they noted. Among the highlights:

– $25 million for Minot International Airport’s expansion.

– $2.75 million in flood assistance for the North Dakota State Fair.

– $5 million in flood assistance to Minot State University.

– $14 million for the Northwest Area Water Supply project.

– $61 million for home buyouts and engineering on a flood protection plan for the Souris River Valley.

– $1.5 million to assist the Minot Housing Authority in establish long-term housing at the site of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Virgil Workman Village.

– $500,000 for Minot Air Force Base retention.

– At least $12.6 million in oil impact funding for Minot.

– $1.73 million for the plant services building at Minot State University.

The Legislature also extended and expanded the Rebuilders Loan program, releasing $13.5 million to assist homeowners and landlords with flood recovery. Legislators approved a sales-tax rebate of up to $2,500 on materials and appliances needed to rebuild. Expenses covered by flood insurance are ineligible. The State Tax Department will be releasing more details on the refund program when the application period opens in August.

“Minot did extremely well this session, considering the appropriations that are desperately needed in our community,” Rep. Scott Louser, R-Minot, said. “We were viewed by the General Assembly as a city that went through the flood first and the oil impact was second. Next session we are going to be an oil-impact hub city first.”

The Legislature appropriated about $2.5 billion to oil-producing counties, including impact funding designated for Minot, Dickinson and Williston as hub cities.

Rep. Dan Ruby, R-Minot, said one of the Legislature’s most important actions was investing in roads and infrastructure. He also felt good about getting more money for fire departments, improving Workers Compensation benefits and a strengthening penalties for driving under the influence. He has concern about the amount of money put into higher education but hopes it will stave off tuition increases.

Rep. Larry Bellew, R-Minot, said he welcomed the tax-relief measures but has concern about whether the Legislature’s record level of spending is sustainable.

“We spent an awful lot of money but, of course, we needed to, with infrastructure, not only in the west but statewide,” said Rep. Roger Brabandt, R-Minot.

“We needed to fund our priorities, not spend all the money, and give tax relief. We did that. So I would say it’s a pretty positive session,” he added. “Last biennium we did $342 million in property-tax relief. The problem with that was the taxpayers didn’t see it. This year we did $854 million and the taxpayers will see it.”

“If I had to pick one thing that I think was really monumental, it’s property-tax relief,” Rep. Robert Frantsvog, R-Minot, said. He said the average property-tax payer should see a 35 to 40 percent reduction.

Rep. Matthew Klein, R-Minot, said a key provision is the doubling in funding to cover additional property-tax credits for seniors of modest incomes through the Homestead and Disabled Veteran Tax Credit program.

Louser said he would have liked more tax cuts.

“I wanted deeper cuts and I wanted more reform in property taxes. We just didn’t get that accomplished this session,” he said.

Another issue that legislators didn’t resolve and can expect to hear more about is natural gas flaring, said Sen. Randy Burckhard, R-Minot. Legislators, the public and industry share an interest in capturing that resource, he said.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of opportunities for that going forward,” he said.

“I just felt that this was a very unique session in that there were so many spending requests,” Rep. Andrew Maragos, R-Minot, said. “There was money available. We still had to winnow it down and prioritize.”

Rep. Roscoe Streyle, R-Minot, said the increases in spending came in areas where it was needed, such as more judges and Highway Patrol officers in western North Dakota.

“We are expanding government, you could say, but these are all pretty critical to safety,” he said.

“Overall, we spent more money than we probably should have,” Klein said, but he added, “It is one-time spending mostly. It’s roads and it’s infrastructure that we need.”

Sen. Oley Larsen, R-Minot, said he got the most satisfaction out of passage of pro-life bills because of the strong support within his constituency. The expansion of the Medicaid program was a tougher decision, but Larsen, who served as vice chairman of the Senate Human Services Committee, said it was a necessary move that will reduce hospital losses and stabilize premiums.

Larsen also was pleased with one bill that flew in under the radar. The legislation will exempt high school transfer students from having to take North Dakota history to graduate if they have taken a state history class in another state. He said the change will positively affect students from Minot Air Force Base as well as other out-of-state students from families drawn by North Dakota’s economy.

Minot Public Schools should see an increase in state money, while district taxpayers get $9 million in property-tax relief.

“Minot Public Schools will do well with the new formula,” Sen. Karen Krebsbach, R-Minot said. “I think it’s going to make quite a difference.”

Streyle said the new funding formula for schools, higher education and oil impact all are positive for Minot.

“Overall, I am pretty happy. I think Minot came out very well during the session, “Streyle said. “We will fare well in the future with the new funding formulas for those three categories.”

Sen. David Hogue, R-Minot said university funding will be more directly tied to enrollment and student success. Whether that helps or hurts MSU will depend on the university’s ability to attract and keep students in a community facing housing pressures.

“You have to have a place to live and if housing is unaffordable, who gets hit the hardest? It’s low-income people trying to move into the area. Most students, obviously, fit that description. If we can get our housing squared away, they will be just fine,” Hogue said.

Among constitutional measures that legislators directed to the voters in 2014 is a measure to replace the Board of Higher Education with a full-time, three-member commission appointed by the governor. Voters also can expect to see a measure restricting ballot initiatives that involve monetary appropriations. At Louser’s request, the Legislature advanced a measure asking voters to prohibit the state from taxing real estate transfers. Real estate sales currently aren’t taxed in North Dakota, but they are in some states.

Although everything might not have gone their way, local legislators were largely positive about the session results.

“At the end of the day, we are still a state that has no debt and a very vibrant economy,” Burckhard said. “We did good. We restructured the taxes. We provided tax relief, and we have given both individuals and corporations relief on their income tax rates. They can create more jobs with that. They can invest more money in North Dakota because of that.”