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Mandan legislators, from left, Rep. Nathan Toman, Sen. Dwight Cook and Rep. Todd Porter, see potential to fund local infrastructure projects through the Operation Prairie Dog legislation.

Mandan legislators say the ambitious infrastructure bill called “Operation Prairie Dog” is a high priority for the city in North Dakota's 2019 session.

House Bill 1066 seeks to fund city, county, township and airport infrastructure projects outside North Dakota’s oil country with up to $280 million per biennium from oil tax revenue. The money would be available in the second year of a biennium, after spilling across other state funds filled from oil tax revenue.

Rep. Todd Porter and Sen. Dwight Cook, both Republicans of Mandan, are among sponsors of the bill, which will start before the House Finance and Taxation Committee.

Porter said Operation Prairie Dog is likely "the crown jewel for Mandan." 

"Infrastructure is a huge component of every city, and when you look at the expense that comes with maintaining and improving a city's infrastructure, it's very hard to do inside of the current special assessments and the current financial structure," Porter said.

"And so any boosts that we can give to the cities to help relieve the burden to the local taxpayers, we need to make sure we do that." 

Mandan Mayor Tim Helbling agreed -- infrastructure funding is huge for Mandan projects, from the city's planned combined freshwater intake on the Missouri River with the Marathon Petroleum Mandan Refinery, to streets and sewer, to replacing water and sewer under Memorial Highway when construction comes in 2020 or 2021.

"If we can't get our hub city funding back, definitely a priority is the Prairie Dog funding," the mayor said. Mandan was excluded as a designated "hub city" for oil impact funds for the current two-year state budget cycle.

City commissioners and Mandan legislators have met over several topics, Helbling added, such as infrastructure funding and flood protection.

Rep. Nathan Toman, R-Mandan, noted Operation Prairie Dog's distribution formula based on populations and valuations as fairer than designating hub cities: "I think that's a little bit better because you're not picking winners and losers from the impacts." 

Among priorities she sees for the city, Rep. Karen Rohr, R-Mandan, also pointed to Operation Prairie Dog, in addition to behavioral health services and K-12 education funding. 

Rohr said constituents have emphasized early detection and treatment of mental illness, given the state's suicide rate -- the highest in the U.S. from 1999 to 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"I get so many calls from families that have been exposed to that, and not just Morton County, which is our district, but I'm talking statewide," Rohr said. Porter and Helbling also said behavioral health is a key issue.

Cook said the issue he hears most about from constituents is North Dakota's so-called "blue law" banning Sunday morning shopping. Fargo Republican Rep. Shannon Roers Jones has introduced House Bill 1097, which she said would give retailers the option to be open Sunday mornings. 

"It's something that every constituent, no matter how much they understand politics, they understand that issue and they have an opinion on that issue," Cook said of the blue law.

Helbling also said he'd like the state to consider Mandan as an agency site, as the city lacks a public college or university or major state office. The North Dakota Youth Correctional Center is just outside Mandan.

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Reach Jack Dura at 701-223-8482 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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