BISMARCK — A powerful North Dakota lawmaker has proposed adding $180 million in funding for infrastructure, renovations on public facilities and technical education to a mammoth bonding bill.
The state House of Representatives approved a $680 million bonding bill last month, but an amendment proposed by Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, would bring the package's price tag up to $860 million. The Senate Finance and Taxation Committee held a hearing on the bill Wednesday, March 17, and will consider Wardner's suggested additions next week, Chairwoman Jessica Bell said. After the committee takes action on the bill, it will go to the Senate floor for a vote of the whole upper chamber.
Wardner's proposed amendment includes:
- $60 million for building and equipping technical education centers, with $45 million dedicated to new facilities.
- $30 million for township roads.
- $10 million for state park maintenance.
- $4.7 million for maintenance on state historical buildings.
- $4 million for Dickinson State University projects.
- $4 million for the University of North Dakota's space command initiative.
The bill approved by the House already includes:
- $435.5 million for the Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion project.
- $74.5 million for a Minot area flood-control project.
- $70 million for highway repairs.
- $50 million for infrastructure loans to cities and counties.
- $50 million for renovations on Harris Hall, an agriculture building at North Dakota State University.
The bonding plan draws on earnings from the state's $8.2 billion oil tax savings account, known as the Legacy Fund, to pay back the bonds to investors in 20 years or fewer.
If Wardner's proposed amendment wins over the committee, the bill would look a lot more like a previous version of the legislation that the House Appropriations Committee whittled down. Some lawmakers thought more expensive iterations of the proposal contained too much "Christmas tree" spending — narrowly focused carve-outs that benefit specific interests.
Wardner said all of the streams of money included in his amendment fund critically important priorities that the state will have to bankroll sooner or later.
The former teacher and school administrator said the Legislature needs to emphasize technical education to better serve students with behavioral issues and meet employers' demands for skilled workers. He also noted that many state-owned buildings are in need of renovation, and the bonding package is the way to fund the projects before they become more expensive.
A procession of state officials and lobbyists followed behind Wardner at the lectern Wednesday to speak on behalf of the bill that would mean an influx of cash to their agencies, clients and projects. But Wardner's proposal isn't popular with everyone in the Capitol.
House Appropriations Chairman Jeff Delzer, an Underwood Republican known for his closefisted approach to budgeting, said he thinks even the bonding package approved by the House is too much money. Delzer said he doesn't think maintenance on state buildings and investment in higher education initiatives are the kinds of priorities that should be funded through bonding, which he views as borrowing.
Wardner said he's confident his amendment will make it through the Senate, but he expects the two chambers will have to hash out their differences on the complicated package during the homestretch of the legislative session. He and other proponents of bonding believe the state should strike while interest rates are low and paying back investors over the next two decades won't put a massive strain on the books.