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Proposed budget accelerates flood protection

Executive budget includes benefits to Minot area

Jill Schramm/MDN Members of the legislative Water Topics Overview Committee join the Souris River Joint Board along the Des Lacs River on a tour of the Mouse River Enhanced Flood Protection Project construction in Burlington Sept. 19. The completion of the Burlington phases next year will be a milestone in the project.

Souris Basin flood protection is earmarked for $76 million and the Northwest Area Water Supply project for about $36 million in the 2023-25 executive budget released by Gov. Doug Burgum Wednesday.

The funding shows interest by the North Dakota Department of Water Resources in accelerating construction on flood protection in the Minot region. Designed to complete the project earlier, the proposal for $76 million was one of the funding options offered by the Souris River Joint Board to legislators at their Water Topics Overview Committee meeting in September.

“We aren’t asking for more money. We are asking for less money sooner,” said SRJB Chairman David Ashley. “We are just asking for it sooner so we can use less money to get the same thing done.”

According to the joint board, the current spending pace would require $687 million to complete the project in the 2039-41 biennium. A consistent commitment of $76 million a biennium would accelerate project completion to 2035, saving $47 million overall, of which $32 million in savings would be experienced by the state.

The joint board had offered another preferred alternative in which the state appropriation begins at $100 million and gradually declines to $63.6 million. Although the completion date remains 2035, that scenario had a higher cost savings of $55 million, of which $37 million would be experienced by the state.

Ashley said legislators will be presented all three scenarios. Either accelerated option is “very doable,” he said. A promised schedule of future state funding also would give the SRJB a clear path forward.

“If we can be definitive as we go forward so we can line up the contractors and put our consultants to work, we can move this ahead with much more consistency,” Ashley said.

The executive budget seeks $600 million for water and flood protection projects during the biennium.

Additionally, the proposed budget would allocate $2.4 billion for infrastructure spending, with much of the money coming from federal dollars. Burgum said the intent is to work toward developing a 10-year plan for road and bridge projects, creating some assurances of funding in the same way that planning with the Water Resources Trust Fund creates assurances for water projects.

“You have a framework you are operating in, and then you can keep moving projects forward every year without having to wait and see what you are going to get from the Legislature. We’re trying to front load some of the infrastructure in a way to be more consistent in how we’re approaching building out all that capacity,” he said.

The proposed budget also includes infrastructure funding through the existing Prairie Dog program. The program was set up to provide a bucket into which a share of oil and gas tax dollars would flow until reaching a prescribed level. The funds are distributed on a formula to counties, cities, townships and airports.

“With the revenues flowing in at the pace they are flowing in right now — which is going to be near a record– Prairie Dog will fill completely sometime before the Legislature even meets,” Burgum said. The anticipation is that everybody will get their full Prairie Dog payments this year and next biennium, he said.

Burgum said the proposal for Hub City funding in the 2023-25 is similar to the current biennium. Hub City funding goes to those communities most greatly impacted by oil and gas activity. Minot has estimated about $6 million annually.

Local jurisdictions also would benefit if legislators enact the budget proposal for a $5 million fund to provide competitive grants to law enforcement. Burgum said the fund will serve to support pilot projects aimed at addressing staffing shortages facing law enforcement agencies across the state. He added he would love to see agencies collaborating on new ways to free up money to spend on frontline law enforcement.

Simply throwing money indiscriminately at the problem only results in moving the same pool of workers around the different agencies, he said. 

“You don’t really solve anything. Part of it is we’ve also got to figure out a way to create supply. So I’m hoping that as part of these programs, we’re going to see maybe there’s an idea here about statewide recruiting,” he said. “We don’t have unified recruiting into police and sheriff’s departments.”

The executive budget unveiled by Burgum Wednesday was a record $18.4 billion, a 3.4% increase over the current biennium. Federal money coming to states and inflation driven by federal spending are behind the increase, the governor said.

“Probably every state’s budget is going to be going up because there’s an unprecedented amount of federal money coming across all kinds of programs that states can compete for,” Burgum said.  “One thing that I would look at is, are we growing government slower than the inflation rate, and are we hopefully going to grow it slower than the economy?”

He said the proposed budget includes a fair amount of one-time spending and builds up the state’s reserve funds.

“We’ve got some of the biggest cushions we’ve ever had, and we’ve got the ability to stop the one-time funding,” he said. “This is a deeply thoughtful and, in many ways, a fiscally conservative budget.”

He added the executive branch has 330 ideas for cutting state expenses that will be introduced in legislation.

“So we feel good that this is the best ever product we’ve ever delivered to the Legislature as a starting point for their appropriations and policy deliberations,” he said. “We feel it has the right amount of savings, the right amount of tax relief and the right amount of investment in things that have high return on investment for the state.”

Infrastructure funds essential

The combination of state funds for infrastructure and flood protection projects for Minot will be essential in the state budget as the community looks to maximize its local cost share, Rep. Scott Louser, R-Minot, said.

“With substantial inflationary pressure and supply chain issues, its essential the Legislature address such projects with some of the budget surplus,” he said.

He added he also was encouraged to hear the governor reiterate his call on Wednesday for the flat income tax proposal, eliminating tax liability for 60% of taxpayers.

“This is similar to a bill I proposed about eight years ago and hopefully the legislature agrees.  Addressing tax relief as one of the earliest bills in session will be unique but a better way to budget each session,” he said. “This is also the session the nearly $2 billion shortfall in the public employees pension fund will be addressed once and for all. I look forward to the legislative and executive branches working together for the citizens of our state this session.”

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