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Legislature OKs slimmed down infrastructure bonding bill

April 9, 2021 GMT

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Senate lawmakers said Friday they are looking to restore hundreds of millions of dollars cut from an approved landmark bonding package aimed largely at financing infrastructure projects across the state.

The original bonding package sought $1.1 billion, but the House slashed that amount to $680 million after grumbling among some lawmakers who believed it was attached to too many unnecessary extras, referred to as “Christmas tree” items.

The Senate on Thursday unanimously approved the scaled-down House version that would use earnings from the state’s oil tax savings account to pay for the borrowed money.

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Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner unveiled the proposal in January but predicted correctly that it would meet resistance in the more-conservative House.

“The House didn’t want to bond as much and we respected that,” Wardner said Friday. The bonding bill has highlighted the session and has been the subject of several behind-the-scenes intraparty negotiations. Gov. Doug Burgum said Friday he will sign the bill.

Burgum and legislative leaders have touted bonding as a way to finance infrastructure projects without having to use other revenue sources or increase taxes.

The bill being considered by the Republican governor allots three-quarters of the amended funding for flood-control projects: $435.5 million in Fargo and $74.5 million for the Minot area. The bill also includes $70 million for highway and bridge infrastructure and $50 million for an agriculture development center at North Dakota State University in Fargo.

Lawmakers say the aim is to pay off the bonds in 20 years or less using earnings from the state’s oil tax savings account, known as the Legacy Fund, which voters enacted in 2010. The fund contains about $8 billion and is expected to earn about $500 million in the next two-year budget cycle.

While priority in the bill was given mostly to water and flood-control projects, Wardner and Senate Appropriations Chairman Ray Holmberg said it’s likely money cut from the original bonding proposal will be found from other sources, including expected federal coronavirus aid.

Items cut from the initial bonding package include $250 million in loans for carbon capture projects at the state’s five coal-fired power plants.

The Legislature’s proposed two-year budget, including federal aid, already is a record $15.6 billion, up from $14.7 billion for the 2019-21 budget cycle that ends June 30.