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Oil development impact and flood control will be major issues of new legislature

1/05/11 (Wed)

North Dakota lawmakers started work Tuesday

 

With the interim committee meetings, orientation sessions and Governor Dalrymple’s State of the State address now complete, District 6 legislators join their colleagues in doing the business of the state during the 62nd Legislative Assembly, which officially convened January 4, 2011.

 

Republican Glen Froseth and Democrat Bob Hunskor will speak for their District 6 constituents in the North Dakota House of Representatives, while Democrat David O’Connell serves in the North Dakota Senate. Despite their party differences, the three veteran legislators agreed the state would be taking action on three major issues this session, including flood control for the Fargo area, water management for the Devils Lake basin, and infrastructure needs related to oil and gas development in western North Dakota.

 

Rep. Glen Froseth

Froseth, who is beginning his 10th session, will serve on the House’s Taxation and Finance Committee and the Government and Veterans Affairs Committee. He supports Governor Dalrymple’s budget proposals for returning funds to the state’s 17 oil-producing counties to pay for infrastructure, including $229 million for state road construction and maintenance in those counties, $142 million for county and township roads in those counties, and an additional $240 million in regular state and federal highway funds dedicated to projects in the Williston, Minot and Dickinson Department of Transportation districts.

 

Dalrymple also proposed an increase in funding for the Oil and Gas Impact Grant Fund to $100, with $35 million targeted for the larger cities in oil country and $65 million available to the smaller cities, townships, counties and other entities affected by oil and gas development.

 

Froseth is concerned about surface owners’ interests related to energy development, especially because many of the landowners in the 17 oil-producing counties do not own the mineral rights on their properties. Froseth has discussed the situation with representatives of the Northwest Landowners Association and studied Section 38 of North Dakota Century Code, which defines and addresses several aspects of oil and gas production damage compensation and sub-surface exploration damages.

 

“Most of what they’re concerned about is law already,” he said, “but we may need to raise awareness among surface owners. There also may need to be more emphasis on enforcement.”

 

He is keeping an eye on potash development in northwest North Dakota. “There needs to be adequate reimbursement back to the counties,” he said. “I’ve got mixed feelings about potash mining. There’s a lot of potential for income for the landowners, the counties and the state, but a lot of issues need to be clarified yet.”

 

He ticked off a list of concerns, including the procedures used for potash extraction and processing, the number of wells involved, and damages to the soil, surface and other environmental matters. “They’ve got enough leased land in Burke County to get started, apparently,” he said, adding that one test well had been drilled with two more test wells planned. “I think we need to get some regulations and a good taxing policy in place with appropriate reimbursement to the counties. The state doesn’t need to worry about their share of the revenue until they can assist the landowners and the counties.”

 

Froseth noted he had seen draft legislation regarding potash mining, and he had an amendment prepared that would address issues of reimbursement to the counties related to impact from that mining.

 

He has also drafted a bill to submit on behalf of the Kenmare Elementary School third grade class. “They want to see the ladybug as the official state insect,” he said, with a smile.

 

While representing the wishes of future voters in the state can be fun, Froseth is focused on serious matters that will impact those young citizens as they become adults, especially related to changes in federal health care laws. “We’re going to have watch what we have to do to comply with the new health care bill,” he said. “It may not make much difference in this session, but there are provisions that require compliance in the next four to six years, and it will be a huge undertaking for the state of North Dakota to comply. At this time, we don’t know exactly what we have to do, but it will certainly be a concern for future sessions.”

 

He wants the legislature to take care with the state’s revenue and budget. “We think we have such a huge surplus,” he said, describing the currently strong farm economy and steady prices for crude oil that are projected to increase. He also cited criticism in other states of the same hydraulic fracturing process used to extract oil from the Bakken Formation in western North Dakota, with additional and stringent federal regulations under discussion.

 

“We have to keep in the back of our mind that this fat source of income stream could go away as fast as we got it,” he cautioned.

 

Even with the problems brought on by the rapid pace of oil and gas development in the western half of the state, Froseth recognized the legislature must focus on the Fargo flood and Devils Lake water issues, too.

 

“You can’t turn your back on Fargo and the economy of the eastern part of the state,” he said. “That’s the biggest contributor to the sales tax collection for the state and a driving force in the state’s economy. And at Devils Lake, for every foot the lake rises, they lose 20,000 acres of farmland. If that continues, that will lead to economic losses for the state.”

 

He continued, “Everybody agrees these are the three big issues, and they affect the whole state: the east, the middle and the west.”

 

Froseth can be contacted during the legislative session by email at gfroseth@nd.gov or by telephone at 1-888-635-3447.

 

Rep. Bob Hunskor

Representative Bob Hunskor is taking part in his sixth legislative assembly and will continue his work on the Natural Resources and Education committees in the North Dakota House.

 

He repeated the Governor’s emphasis on the three major issues confronting the legislature and the state, then added his own concern. “One of the huge issues will be for the legislators to agree how to prioritize these,” he said. “We have to decide how the money is going to be split among these three needs.”

 

Like Froseth, Hunskor wants to see the legislature address the topic of surface owners’ rights related to oil and gas production. “There is a need for the legislature to minimize the problems that develop between the surface owners and the industry,” he said.

 

He is also interested in studying options to provide more housing for workers in the oil-producing counties, especially after reading projections last weekend that 23,000 additional workers would be needed in eight of those counties within the near future. “Does the state invest in this, or do we leave it to private developers?” he asked. “And, in five to ten years from now, if the state invests, we have to make sure that money has been spent wisely.”

 

Hunskor is already looking forward to two topics that will be raised in the Education Committee. “One of the issues will be an alternative pay method based on a teacher’s performance,” he said, “a type of merit-based pay on top of the regular salary schedule.”

 

He also expects the committee to consider ways to increase the Teachers Fund For Retirement following recent losses in that account because of declines in the stock market and the nation’s economy. “Some people say to build up that fund, the employees and employers should have to make larger contributions,” he said. “Other people say that new employees, whether teachers or public employees, should have to have 401(k) plans like they do in private businesses. I have a concern about this issue and will be working with it closely.”

 

Two additional matters that interest Hunskor include legislation introduced to ban drivers from sending or reading text messages while operating a vehicle and a bill to require a graduated licensing system for the state’s youngest drivers.

 

Overall, Hunskor wants to see the session focused on legislation that can be passed to benefit the state and its citizens. “I hope we use common sense and do what’s right,” he said. “People keep an eye on what’s going on down here.”

 

He continued, “I know almost all the people who live in District 6. If I’m in Kenmare at the coffee shop, people are going to ask me questions. We’re accountable and that’s good.”

 

Hunskor can be reached during the session by email at bhunskor@nd.gov.

 

Sen. David O’Connell

Senator David O’Connell was first elected to the ND House of Representatives in 1982 and then moved to the Senate in 1989, where his service included eight years in Senate Leadership for the Democratic-NPL party.

 

For this session, O’Connell decided to step out of that leadership role, even as he acknowledged the opportunities and responsibilities he experienced in the position. He has accepted a position on the Senate Appropriations Committee for this session and has already dedicated time to the Education Sub-Committee, with the expectation of serving on other sub-committees and dealing with a variety of funding issues as the session progresses.

 

“It’s always easier when you don’t have money,” he joked.

 

He noted that while Governor Dalrymple included a three percent increase in pay for state employees, he would like to see that amount increased. “We need to go higher to keep up with oil field wages,” he said.

 

He also intends to keep a close eye on legislation related to oil and gas production, especially in cases where mineral rights have been severed from the current landowners. “That will be a hot issue,” he said, adding he had heard of lease problems and damages to land from several landowners.

 

Questions and comments can be sent to O’Connell by email at doconnell@nd.gov. He can also be contacted by phone at 701-328-3308.