- Associated Press - Thursday, August 13, 2015

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - North Dakota legislative leaders said Thursday that lawmakers should not tap into the $3.3 billion currently in the state’s oil savings account when they have their first chance to access the money in 2017.

The growth of the savings account that has accrued since 2011 and expected to top $4 billion when the Legislature reconvenes in 2017 comes amid unprecedented demands statewide for spending on roads, schools, public works, law enforcement and emergency medical services. Increasingly, there have been rumblings of smashing the state’s piggy bank.

During a “policy summit” the Greater North Dakota Chamber of Commerce sponsored in Bismarck involving some 200 business leaders, Republican and Democratic legislative leaders alike voiced a desire to keep the $3.3 billion in the Legacy Fund’s principal untouched. However, Democrats have pushed for a plan to spend the interest.

“We’re not going to dig into it the first chance we can,” House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, told The Associated Press before the meeting. “We have to be very cautious with that fund and let it grow.”

Ideas from the audience ranged from spending more money on education to using the state’s oil savings account to the purchase the Minnesota Vikings football team.

“There are people out there who feel we should be spending that money,” Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, told the AP. “(But) I don’t believe we will be tapping the principal.”

North Dakota voters approved the fund’s creation in November 2010, when they endorsed a constitutional amendment that requires setting aside 30 percent of the state’s tax revenues on oil and natural gas production. The amendment bars the Legislature from spending any of the fund’s assets until June 2017. After that, a two-thirds vote of the North Dakota House and Senate is needed to spend any of the fund’s principal. Lawmakers may not withdraw more than 15 percent of the principal every two years.

“There’s people drooling all over that fund,” Carlson told the business leaders.

The GOP floor leaders were joined by House Minority Leader Kenton Onstad, D-Parshall, and Assistant Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman, D- New Rockford.

“I think we’re all agreement that the Legacy Fund is funded by a finite resource,” Onstad said. “We want to let that fund grow we don’t want to touch that principal. It would have to be an extreme, extreme case.”

Heckaman said she wants to protect the fund’s principal “for as long as we can” but should identify priorities for its earnings.

North Dakota Republicans currently hold two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate, and hold the governorship. The constitutional amendment passed by voters in 2010 requires that the fund’s earnings be transferred into the state’s general fund after June 2017. Legislators last session had sought to put the earnings back into the fund’s principal, but Gov. Jack Dalrymple vetoed the bill, saying “it would clearly contradict the will of voters.”

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