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Special session should be a last resort

The case has not been made for calling a special session of the North Dakota Legislature.

The Democratic-NPL leadership in the state House and Senate sent a letter to Gov. Jack Dalrymple asking him to call a special session to deal with infrastructure needs in western North Dakota.

Serious infrastructure needs do exist in the state’s oil patch. To address those needs, the Legislature appropriated more than $2 billion for roads and bridges alone for the two-year budget cycle that began in 2013. About half that money has been spent. Additional funds were budgeted for education and law enforcement.

Positive changes were made in state housing policy to support affordable housing. Lawmakers were not inattentive.

Was it enough?

Many city and county officials will tell you no, and say they are falling behind.

Another question might be: How fast can you responsibly spend the funds already provided?

Most contractors in western North Dakota are maxed out in terms of ability to manage projects. Finding qualified construction workers is particularly difficult, and then you have to find housing for them in a stressed rental market. Cities and counties out west are hard-pressed to provide the necessary oversight for adding infrastructure.

Dalrymple has been talking with officials from local government in western North Dakota as he considers whether to call a special session. It’s the responsible thing to do. But perhaps more important, what’s the view of Republican legislators who are in the majority in both the House and Senate? Democrats may be responding to what they see as a pressing need, but they need those Republican legislators to be on board to get anything substantive done.

Are Western officials making their case to Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, and members of the House and Senate appropriations committees?

Let’s not forget that this is an election year. Expect some tough politics ahead when it comes to spending on infrastructure.

It’s not just a tremendous need in the oil patch, but also there’s talk of financing a costly pipeline to move water from the Missouri River to the Red River, and other items on the state’s wish list. Tweaking the formula for distributing funds may not be as simple as it might sound.

The Legislature has made available considerable funding for infrastructure in western North Dakota, and will likely provide more in the next session. Lawmakers have proven they can act quickly to fund essential projects once they are in session. Lawmakers meeting in January 2015 will be able to dedicate funds for that summer’s construction season in a timely fashion.

There are means short of calling a special session that the state can employ to help smooth over problems in the oil patch. Those efforts should get a hard first look before calling lawmakers back into the Capitol.

Besides, you always have to worry about the unintended consequences.

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