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'This dog is digging': Gov. Burgum signs 'Operation Prairie Dog' infrastructure bill

Gov. Doug Burgum signs House Bill 1066, or "Operation Prairie Dog," on Wednesday, March 20, 2019, for infrastructure projects throughout North Dakota. North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger looks on, ready to certify the bill's delivery. Lawmakers involved in the bill's legislative process look on from behind, including Rep. Mike Nathe, R-Bismarck, immediately behind Jaeger. Nathe introduced the bill. Jack Dura / Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK -- Gov. Doug Burgum has signed off on "Operation Prairie Dog."

House Bill 1066, now made law, adds new "buckets" to the state funds filled from oil tax revenue, to be distributed throughout North Dakota for city, county, township and airport infrastructure projects.

Money would first be available for projects in the summer of 2021, according to Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, who helped develop the bill.

Burgum signed the bill in a ceremony on Wednesday with Secretary of State Al Jaeger, who certified its delivery. Republican and Democratic-NPL representatives and senators associated with the bill looked on.

"This dog is digging," Wardner said after the ceremony.

The infrastructure "buckets" may fill to $250 million total, distributing up to $115 million to cities, $115 million to counties and townships and $20 million for airport infrastructure.

Distributions are based on populations and property valuations. Funding would be pro-rated if the "buckets" do not fill due to declined oil prices and production.

"Operation Prairie Dog" also tweaks the Gross Production Tax formula for what Wardner said preserves funding for oil patch communities and cements "hub city" designations for Dickinson, Minot and Williston.

Funding recipients may save their money for projects years out, which Wardner said provides "certainty" for small cities who may not be saving for critical, future projects.

"I see this over the long haul as being really positive for small communities as well as large communities," Wardner told the Bismarck Tribune.

Gov. Doug Burgum expressed optimism for the funding mechanism of "Operation Prairie Dog," which relies on oil prices and production.

West Texas Intermediate stood at about $60 on Wednesday. North Dakota oil production has stayed around 1.4 million barrels per day.

"In this environment, things look very positive, but we know that there's an opportunity for prices to be volatile, but we've got some protection on the downside because our production is more assured than ever before," Burgum said.

Bismarck Mayor Steve Bakken said the city would likely use "Operation Prairie Dog" money for critical intersections and roads. The city should be "thrifty," he added.

"If we have an opportunity to start picking off some low-hanging fruit on projects with the use of this funding, then great," Bakken said. "But until it's in our hands, we can't use it as a budgeting tool."

He said he considers the funding as "found money," which could help "accelerate" or offset project costs with the city's new voter-approved half-cent sales tax.

Bismarck's half-cent sales tax takes effect April 1 to help cover costs for specific roadway projects.

"Operation Prairie Dog" money would be available toward the end of the state's two-year budget cycle, as oil tax revenue flows through the state "buckets." The funding is continual.

In his executive budget recommendation, Gov. Burgum proposed a $55 million infrastructure revolving loan fund and a $25 million K-12 school construction loan fund expansion — both of which he said are "still alive" in the legislative process, but may come down to the final days of session.

"We're interested to see if some of those still move forward because some of those are complementary to the bill we just signed," Burgum said.

Senate Bill 2275, introduced by Wardner, proposes a low-interest revolving loan fund as supplementary funding to "Operation Prairie Dog."

That bill unanimously passed the Senate and awaits a House vote.