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Infrastructure wishes emerge for North Dakota's Rescue Plan aid

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North Dakota lawmakers are poised to make infrastructure a major item when deciding how to spend the state's $1 billion share of federal American Rescue Plan Act coronavirus aid.

House and Senate budget writers, beginning Tuesday, meet throughout this month for a series of hearings on proposals for how to spend the money in a reconvened legislative session beginning Nov. 8. 

Top lawmakers have emphasized the money should be used for one-time projects, to shield state taxpayers from future funding requirements. Infrastructure has emerged across Republicans', Democrats' and Gov. Doug Burgum's respective ideas. 

"Our goal on this money is to put it into one-time funding for infrastructure, things that are going to be there for a while and take pressure off of our general fund," said Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson.

The Legislative Council, lawmakers' nonpartisan fiscal and legal research agency, compiled nearly 200 proposals from Republican and Democratic-NPL lawmakers and the governor, which will be categorized and and split between the House and Senate appropriations committees for hearings. Time for testimony on each proposal will be "extremely limited," according to a memo to lawmakers.

Burgum's "Accelerate ND" proposal chiefly addresses $697 million of Rescue Plan money, putting $326 million toward workforce and economic development, $237 million toward infrastructure and other improvements, and $134 million toward improving various state programs and initiatives.

Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, addresses Rescue Plan aid spending proposals.

Among his infrastructure proposals are installing median cable guardrails on all interstate highways, and widening U.S. Highway 85 to four lanes from Watford City to the Long X Bridge.

In the Democrats' plan is $507 million in infrastructure proposals, including $400 million for "shovel-ready," long-term projects, such as roads and bridges, water projects and natural gas pipelines.

Rep. Mike Nathe, R-Bismarck, is proposing $220 million be used to fill two state infrastructure funds that fell short of expected oil tax revenue in the 2019-21 budget cycle.

The so-called "Operation Prairie Dog" funds provide formula-based infrastructure funding to cities, counties, townships and airports.

"We can put that money in there and let these political subdivisions start getting ready for the next construction season, gives them a jump on it," said Nathe, who is a House budget writer.

Sen. Dale Patten, R-Watford City, supports using Rescue Plan money to fund the Highway 85 four-laning segment, calling it a high priority. 

The roadway is an arterial route through the western North Dakota oil patch. So far, only a short segment of the 62-mile section from Watford City to Interstate 94 has been completed -- the area around the Long X Bridge.

"Our Highway 85 project will go a long way toward completing the four-laning component across the entire state," Patten said. "We've got it on the north side, we've got on the south side, we've got in the middle, we've got in the east. We need to get one more done in the west." 

The Rescue Plan money must be put to a purpose by the end of 2024 and be spent by the end of 2026. State agencies submitted proposals to the Office of Management and Budget that totaled $4.76 billion.

The appropriations committees meet Tuesday and Wednesday, Oct. 19-20 and 26-27. The Legislative Management panel meets Nov. 1 to advance legislation to the reconvened session, which is limited to four days of floor sessions.

The Legislature also will take up redistricting in its reconvened session. Lawmakers must approve a new map of legislative districts, utilizing 2020 census data. A committee draft maintains 47 districts, each with a senator and two representatives, and creates a House subdistrict for the Fort Berthold and Turtle Mountain Indian reservations.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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