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Grand Forks Herald Q&A: A look at District 42 before the start of the North Dakota Legislature

The Herald recently sent questionnaires to all local lawmakers in advance of the upcoming session of the state Legislature.

North Dakota Legislature
The North Dakota Capitol in Bismarck. Photo illustration by Troy Becker
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GRAND FORKS — In 2019, the Grand Forks Herald reported on the youthful up-and-coming lawmakers in District 42, including Reps. Claire Cory and Emily O’Brien.

Now, three years later, O’Brien and Cory are still around and along with veteran lawmaker Curt Kreun, the three make up an experienced nucleus that once again is headed to a session of the state Legislature.

District 42 generally includes far western Grand Forks, on the west side of I-29, along with a strip of land that reaches to Grand Forks Air Force Base. It also includes a thumb-like area that juts eastward into Grand Forks, between DeMers Avenue and Gateway Drive.

The Herald recently sent questionnaires to all local lawmakers in advance of the upcoming session of the Legislature. Below are the verbatim answers from all three District 42 delegates.

Sen. Curt Kreun

Party affiliation: Republican.

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Years of service in Legislature: 12 (at end of current term)

Curt Kreun
Sen. Curt Kreun (Photo provided by North Dakota Legislative Council)

Herald: Do you have any particular bills you’ll present or sponsor in the upcoming session? If so, please give details.

Kreun: At the present time, I don't have any bills finalized. I have been working on potential housing, property tax and energy bills. Details have not yet been developed as to how each of the bills may be brought forth.

Herald: North Dakota appears to be in good financial standing. Do you believe that? And if so, how might the state’s financial standing affect the coming session? If there is money to spend, do you have ideas (or predictions) on where it should be spent?

Kreun: It appears there will be funds available for one-time projects. At this point, we want to make sure we have fulfilled all our commitments for the current budget cycle. From that point, funds should be prioritized for mostly one time funding such as research projects that mainly benefit the whole state and the natural gas line from west to east and water supply project that affect more than one half the population of the state.

Herald: In Grand Forks, a planned technical education center (the Career Impact Academy) received more than $10 million in donations in hopes of getting $10 million in state funding. But construction hasn’t yet begun due to a holdup of federal funds flowing to North Dakota – funds that in turn will be distributed by the state. Is there a solution to get this project rolling? And should the state disburse additional funds to accommodate the delays and associated inflationary costs?

Kreun: The Career Impact Academy is an important workforce development tool. Prior to the pandemic, there were possible types of funding that were accessible and existing buildings that were appropriate for remodeling that no longer are available. Starting this project prior to the pandemic when those opportunities existed would have cost less. The local entities are in charge of this project. If those entities now require extra funds to begin the project, they could ask the state to share in the burden fifty-fifty.

Herald: We’ve heard much about property tax relief in the state, including from the governor’s office. Is this a top-of-mind issue for members of the Legislature? Should this be a high priority? And if so, what should be done?

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Kreun: When we talk about property tax relief, one must remember the state does not have any input on local property taxes or expenses, nor does it collect property tax dollars. The state already contributes around 30 percent of the property tax relief for each property. The amount of relief is listed at the top of your property tax statement as "Legislative Tax Relief." That is the amount the state already pays. Property tax is high on the priority list and there will be different bills brought forward with several different approaches.

Herald: What do you feel is Grand Forks’ biggest legislative concern as the session begins, and what should be done about it?

Kreun: Each and every legislative session there always seems to be one or two topics that comes to the surface. Infrastructure and transportation are two that go hand in hand. These items affect every person in our community and state. Most of the time, it is "out of sight, out of mind." This way of thinking cannot continue. Attention must be brought to existing and future infrastructure projects including water-sewer, streets, public buildings, electrical supply, and natural gas needs to name a few. Without planning for these infrastructure needs, our community will not survive or grow!

Rep. Emily O’Brien

Party affiliation: Republican.

Years of service in Legislature: Six years.

Emily O'Brien
Rep. Emily O'Brien (Photo provided by North Dakota Legislative Council)

Herald: Do you have any particular bills you’ll present or sponsor in the upcoming session? If so, please give details.

O’Brien: I have a few bills in the works right now – my main priorities of legislation will be focusing on behavioral health initiatives; a handful of “clean-up” bills which clarify some ambiguous language; working on property tax reform; working on solutions for our workforce shortages – focusing on recruitment and retention; childcare program incentives; reintroducing the bioscience tax credit.

Herald: North Dakota appears to be in good financial standing. Do you believe that? And if so, how might the state’s financial standing affect the coming session? If there is money to spend, do you have ideas (or predictions) on where it should be spent?

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O’Brien: I do believe that North Dakota is in good financial standing. Many have said that sessions are more difficult when there are more dollars to be spent and I believe that to be true. Every initiative and priority that is introduced is important just to different degrees and levels to certain individuals. It will be a challenging session for members of Appropriations to prioritize where the money will be spent. From many of the conversations I have had, the top priorities — to name a few are and in no particular order — are: the public employee retirement plan that meets or exceeds our current benefits to ensure workforce attraction and retention competitiveness, public employee salary increases, behavioral health services, infrastructure projects, tax incentive programs for communities and economic development, research and development funding for our higher education institutions, and child care initiatives. Another topic that has affected many are the rising inflationary costs which will be discussed frequently.

Herald: In Grand Forks, a planned technical education center (the Career Impact Academy) received more than $10 million in donations in hopes of getting $10 million in state funding. But construction hasn’t yet begun due to a holdup of federal funds flowing to North Dakota – funds that in turn will be distributed by the state. Is there a solution to get this project rolling? And should the state disburse additional funds to accommodate the delays and associated inflationary costs?

O’Brien: This will be a continuous conversation of how we are going to address the hold-up on federal funds and if the state will step in to address this. The Office of Management and Budget has continued to reach out to our federal point of contact on the status of the funds, to still be stuck at a standstill. We will be working on creative strategies to get this addressed.

Herald: We’ve heard much about property tax relief in the state, including from the governor’s office. Is this a top-of-mind issue for members of the Legislature? Should this be a high priority? And if so, what should be done?

O’Brien: Yes, I have continuously talked about this over several different meetings with individuals over the last year and a half. Many individuals are waning more property tax relief – rightfully so! Currently, on your property tax statement, there is a Legislative Property Tax Relief line item that shows how much property tax relief they are receiving. This upcoming session we will see a few different proposals on how to provide more property tax relief to those individuals.

Herald: What do you feel is Grand Forks’ biggest legislative concern as the session begins, and what should be done about it?

O’Brien: Grand Forks’ biggest legislative concern as this session begins will not be limited to just one item. To name a few priorities for our community: infrastructure and transportation funding – “Prairie Dog” infrastructure funding, the DeMers Avenue/42nd Street Grade Separation, 47th Avenue interchange; water project support – Red River Valley Water Supply Project; public safety, NDPERS/Benefits/Fiscal Solubility; community/economic development. These are not their only priorities as there are many important initiatives that make our Grand Forks community a place to live and thrive. It is a team effort from our local leaders and individuals that live in our communities. I look forward to serving our community to the best of my ability to address these initiatives, projects and concerns.

Rep. Claire Cory

Party affiliation: Republican.

Years of service in the Legislature: Entering third.

011721.N.GFH.Claire Cory
Rep. Claire Cory (Photo provided by North Dakota Legislative Council)

Herald: Do you have any particular bills you’ll present or sponsor in the upcoming session? If so, please give details.

Cory: This session my main focus will be a school choice bill, to deal with the growing issues we see in our public school system. COVID-19 really exposed weaknesses in the one size fits all model for students, as during distance learning many previously strong students faltered and struggled to find success. While I am not opposed to the decisions the schools made at the time, I see more than ever the need for flexibility from parents, and cost is a huge barrier to making those decisions. With a school choice bill, parents will be able to take the funding we are already spending and allocate towards a school which best fits their children.

Additionally, our school system is starting to teach issues which some parents may find uncomfortable or disagree with and school choice allows parents to choose a curriculum that aligns with their ethics, beliefs, and values. In addition to school choice, I will be introducing some technical bills designed to clarify and reduce government regulation in favor of a simpler approach.

Herald: North Dakota appears to be in good financial standing. Do you believe that? And if so, how might the state’s financial standing affect the coming session? If there is money to spend, do you have ideas (or predictions) on where it should be spent?

Cory: North Dakota financially lives and dies by commodities prices, which appear to be rather strong. Unfortunately, given the volatility of the oil sector, it is almost impossible to predict our financial situation in six months, let alone three years. To put it into perspective WTI oil has seen a 32% decline in the past six months, after its rally to $120/barrel. Since last year around this time, oil is up roughly 21%, but this just shows the extreme volatility in pricing. Beyond oil, we are also dependent on an ag sector that is not known for price stability. Agricultural commodities fluctuate wildly, and this creates real problems when discussing the mid-term health of the state. Lastly, what is good for tax revenue in our state runs contrary to what most people in my district want. They want cheap food and gasoline, which means for North Dakota to be in strong financial standing, District 42 residents are squeezed. As a result, many of our policy goals, to combat inflation (predominantly determined by food and fuel) directly contradict how our state makes money.

Given the extreme volatility, we need to maintain healthy buffers, but in the longer term should focus more on the diversification of the economy. Utilizing oil revenues for programs like the Prairie Dog Bill will allow us to invest in infrastructure in the hopes of growing our economy such that we are no longer subjected to the inherent volatility of the commodities market. For this session bioscience could in theory leverage our agricultural goods and create true value add, and the necessary spending on bioscience.

Most important, however, is to address the fact that families are struggling and as such, most of the funds are going to be forced into short-term relief or one-time spending projects. While our goals of diversification are important, we need to stabilize the situation for struggling families before we invest in the future.

Herald: In Grand Forks, a planned technical education center (the Career Impact Academy) received more than $10 million in donations in hopes of getting $10 million in state funding. But construction hasn’t yet begun due to a holdup of federal funds flowing to North Dakota – funds that in turn will be distributed by the state. Is there a solution to get this project rolling? And should the state disburse additional funds to accommodate the delays and associated inflationary costs?

Cory: The biennial system of North Dakota is both good and bad. The good part is that it keeps us legislators grounded and in our communities. It ensures that we can meet with our constituents, and allows us to be citizen legislators. On the bad side, things don’t move as quickly as they should and the federal government does not match the North Dakota timetable.

The delay in federal funds could prove an even greater issue as if they arrive after the session, given recent policies which limit the authority of the governor and the relevant emergency commission to appropriate funds, as covered by the Herald previously.

As far as the state dispersing additional funds, that is certainly a possibility, and due to delays in an inflationary environment it is likely that the $20M original budget is no longer realistic.

Assuming an average of 6% CAGR in cost, the project could cost over $22M, or more than 10% above the original estimate. The career academy is important to Grand Forks, and I will work to ensure that adequate funding is procured, regardless of the federal and inflationary situation we are facing.

Herald: We’ve heard much about property tax relief in the state, including from the governor’s office. Is this a top-of-mind issue for members of the Legislature? Should this be a high priority? And if so, what should be done?

Cory: Tax relief fundamentally allows citizens to keep more of the money they earn in their wallets.

Over the past two years, we have witnessed inflation which is very reminiscent of the 1970s and as such the cost of living is growing faster than incomes are.

As a result, the Legislature's most direct tool is to combat inflation with proportional tax cuts. If the cost of goods rises 7%, but your take-home pay also rises by 7%, you have effectively negated the higher cost of living, and it is our goal to bridge some of that 7% gap with tax policy.

The flat tax proposal would allow substantial tax relief for most North Dakota's bringing their effective tax burden to zero. As such it is probably the single most effective tool we have to deal with the increases in cost of living and I intend to support it.

Herald: What do you feel is Grand Forks’ biggest legislative concern as the session begins, and what should be done about it?

Cory: A big concern of mine is workforce development. This is something that affects every North Dakota town from here in Grand Forks to our neighboring communities of Manvel and Larimore with 30,000-40,000 unfilled jobs in all industries (statewide). There will be lots of discussions around the workforce situation, and we hope to find solutions during the session.

Another, equally as important, is the increased cost of living. Since getting elected, we have seen double digit, and in extreme cases, triple digit increases in the cost of core goods. As an example, eggs in the past year alone have gone up nearly 80%. Gasoline is in a similar situation, and so families are being put in tough financial situations. The most direct relief we can bring is the aforementioned tax cuts, and it is our hope that long term inflation will be reduced by promoting the expansion of our oil industry, as the price of gas ultimately makes its way into every single good available for sale.

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Related Topics: NORTH DAKOTA LEGISLATURE
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