BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Before North Dakota’s treasury was overflowing with oil revenues, state lawmakers in the ultra-conservative state were notoriously stingy in spending taxpayer money.
“In the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, it was tight and we were tightfisted — we had to be,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner said. “We just said, “We don’t have the money and we’re not doing it.’ And we didn’t.”
That’s been a hard argument to make with the explosion of oil development, which has pumped so much tax revenue into government coffers that the state of about 737,000 residents now boasts more than $2 billion in surplus.
As such, lawmakers have increasingly shown an eagerness to spend the extra money on projects that likely would have never seen daylight in leaner times, including $746,000 to purchase a boat marina at Lake Sakakawea; $1.1 million to upgrade the cafe at the state Capitol; and $100,000 to purchase famous band leader Lawrence Welk’s boyhood home.
But slipping oil prices may temper the pork party when the Legislature begins its new session Tuesday.
“The marina, the Welk home — things like that are going to be scrutinized a lot more this time,” said Wardner, a Dickinson Republican who has spent 24 years in the Legislature. “I don’t see anything like that showing up this time around.”
Increasing oil riches have resulted in unprecedented demands statewide for spending on roads, schools, public works, law enforcement and emergency medical services. The state’s current two-year budget, including federal aid, is $14 billion — about $10 billion more than a decade ago.
Gov. Jack Dalrymple last month presented the Legislature with a $15.7 billion proposed two-year budget — a plan he called “ambitious” but also “balanced and sustainable.” It includes $3.7 billion to help western North Dakota’s oil-producing region address its rapid growth.
Even with the a 14 percent spending increase and tax cuts, the governor’s plan estimates a budget surplus of $3.5 billion at the end of the next two-year budget cycle in June.
There’s one concern: Dalrymple’s budget assumes North Dakota sweet crude will fetch $74 come July 1 and $82 when the biennium ends on June 30, 2017. Oil was about $53 a barrel on Friday.
“The elephant in the room is the price of oil,” Senate Democratic Minority Leader Mac Schneider of Grand Forks said. “It’s an issue we have no control over and one that will hang over our proceedings this session. Obviously, we’ll have to look at every expenditure critically.”
Wardner defended the million-dollar makeover at the cafe at the statehouse, saying it was sorely needed. North Dakota’s Capitol was constructed 80 years ago for $2 million, or about $34 million in today’s dollars.
And the Welk farmstead purchase came two decades after Congress had earmarked $500,000 to develop a tourist industry in Strasburg, but that money was later withdrawn when the idea was mocked as a national symbol of wasteful spending. It didn’t stop North Dakota lawmakers — only one voted against the purchase during the last session.
The Legislature’s questionable spending in the last session had “relatively little impact” on the state’s budget itself, Schneider said.
His eastern North Dakota district benefited last session, as the Legislature approved $11.4 million to expand the University of North Dakota’s law school.
“One man’s marina is another man’s addition to the UND law school,” Schneider said.
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