- Associated Press - Thursday, February 12, 2015

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - The Bismarck Tribune, Bismarck, Feb. 12, 2015

Helms’ job description should be clear

There’s an effort in the Legislature to take away part of the duties of Lynn Helms, director of the Department of Mineral Resources. To a degree it appears to be a battle over semantics.

Sen. Connie Triplett, D-Grand Forks, is the primary sponsor of SB2366 that seeks to separate the regulatory and promotional duties of Helms’ office. The bill would move the promotional role to the Department of Commerce. Triplett told a committee hearing last week that the bill isn’t directed at the Industrial Commission, who Helms reports to, or Helms, but at avoiding the perception of a conflict by the public that becomes “an indictment of us as lawmakers.” Helms’ duties have been in statute since 1953.

Helms counters that the only promotional duties he performs involves encouraging responsible development and safety procedures. The North Dakota Petroleum Council, Helms argues, is responsible for handling promotional activities. The council does lobby for the industry at the Legislature and before the industrial Commission. It has clearly stated industry positions on flaring, waste disposal and a myriad of topics. The council also runs public announcements.

It’s the appearance of conflict that gets Helms criticized. When he addresses industry groups he’s seen as a cheerleader as he applauds oil production records and other drilling successes. However, he’s an employee of a state that’s excited about oil development and the revenue it provides. Helms’ enthusiasm about the oil patch reflects the state’s position. He’s also one of the state’s enforcers, but that role is less visible.

Triplett’s bill isn’t the answer, but Helms and the industrial Commission need to make some changes. Helms should review which industry meetings he attends and when he does address groups he should choose his words carefully. He has drawn criticism in the past when he’s talked too freely or appeared too close to industry. The commission and the state need to be more firm at times.

Sierra Club of North Dakota spokesman Wayde Schafer said at the hearing that it was like Helms had two jobs and questioned how many professions would allow that situation. We disagree with that comparison.

Helms has one job and it involves regulation. As noted he needs to change his approach - in his job cheerleading should be done in moderation. On the issue of semantics, the Industrial Commission should clarify his job description. And when they do the commission should make sure Helms’ isn’t burdened with any oversight of pipelines. There are thousands of miles of pipelines in the state and more in the planning stages. There is only so much one office can handle.


Minot Daily News, Minot, Feb. 11, 2015

Benefits don’t outweigh the downside

This week the North Dakota House will vote on whether to raise the tobacco tax for the first time since 1993.

A proposal by Rep. Jon Nelson of Rugby would raise the tax on a pack of cigarettes from 44 cents a pack to $1.52 a pack while raising the tax on snuff from 60 cents to $2.72.

Proponents of the legislation say increased taxes would benefit the state in two ways. First, increased tax revenue would help offset decreases in oil taxes. Second, fewer people would begin smoking and others would quit, making North Dakota a healthier state.

While we support any measure to make the state healthier and to get people to quit smoking, raising cigarette taxes with an eye on revenue is a bad idea. First, North Dakota has plenty of money. The state has billions in the bank due to the amazing economy we have enjoyed over the last decade. North Dakota does not need the extra money this increased tax would bring.

This measure would more than double the current tax, a reach that in our view is too great. If you want to raise the tobacco tax, let’s do it in a slow and steady manner.

But our real concern is with the idea of saddling new “sin” taxes on people who do something that is perfectly legal, even if it’s not popular.

If the state raises the cigarette tax, few smokers will quit. They will spend more and keep smoking. So our question is where does it end? Would legislators look at alcohol next? That’s another bad habit, one that can be deadly, and frankly one that is probably more dangerous to society as a whole. Rarely do smokers cause accidents that kill innocent people. Those who abuse alcohol do on a regular basis.

After alcohol, then what? Big Macs and Whoppers can lead to weight gain, putting a stress on the medical field and in some cases leading to health problems that cause death. Should we tax them? Should we tax potato chips at a higher level?

The legislature punishing unpopular activities that are perfectly legal is a dangerous thing to step into. For that reason, we oppose this tax. It’s reaching too far, and the possible benefits do not outweigh the potential downside.


Williston Herald, Williston, Jan. 31, 2015

Was it something we said, Sen. Cook?

There’s an old saying that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

It’s increasingly clear State Sen. Dwight Cook, R-Mandan, has never heard that saying before.

For the second straight session, Cook took up the dissenting opinion against direct oil patch and hub city funding for western North Dakota, citing a new budget forecast from the House Appropriations Committee, which assumes a $4 billion oil tax revenue shortfall.

Cook called Senate Bill 2103, a $1.1 billion “surge” funding bill for western infrastructure, “too rich” for his taste, and was one of two votes against the bill Thursday.

Talk about a familiar position to be in.

Last session, Cook systematically demolished House Bill 1358 - the “Skarphol” bill - which established hub cities of oil production, including Williston, and provided direct funding. During that time he had the audacity to ask oil patch cities to show him where the needs were at.

Ignorance must be bliss, because if Cook’s stance last year wasn’t to be taken personally by Williston and others, this year’s vote solidifies it was to be.

But why? And why so pessimistic?

Granted, we haven’t seen this bill have its run through the House and Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, yet, but we find ourselves agreeing with Rep. Carlson in one respect: “The sky is not falling.”

It surely isn’t, Sen. Cook.

As we stated a week ago, this is the perfect time for Williston and other overburdened oil cities to finally have some breathing room and catch up. The infrastructure needs funded in SB 2103 will be less expensive as we’ve seen material and labor costs start to sink with oil prices.

And the investment into Williston is still here, too, showing confidence in the city and the Bakken’s potential in the long run.

Terry Olin, principal of Stropiq, probably said it best while detailing his firm’s project: Oil prices are always temporary, high or low.

And Stropiq, to name one project, is remaining confident in the region as it filed its site plan for a 219-acre mixed-use real estate project. That’s quite the risk for a place we feel too many people are writing off too early.

Actually, it’s the perfect risk to show that investor confidence will help keep Williston up and running.

And of those investors, the state needs to continue to pay its dues to improve the quality of life in western North Dakota, even as oil prices remain mired in a funk.

That includes you, Sen. Cook.

Making a political statement or holding grudges at the expense of the people who have spent the past two years reminding you what the needs are out here is the wrong thing to do.

Reducing funding and cash flow for critical needs will not allow oil patch communities to catch up during a time in which they can breathe and build, and build quickly.

Standing in a nearly-lone defiance in your chamber sends a strong message not only to the people here, but around the state as well.

Maybe Sen. Dick Dever, R-Bismarck, should be the preferred route next time.

“I don’t know if the bill has the right amount of money. I don’t know if it’s properly allocated. I do know that it’s the right thing to do,” he said.

We’ve shown you the need. The state has shown you our needs. And we’ve put plenty of “skin in the game” to help our needs the best we can.

Time to step up, Sen. Cook.

If you can’t beat us, it’s time to join us.


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