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North Dakota GOP to scrub ambitious $1.1B bonding proposal

January 18, 2021 GMT

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A massive $1.1 billion bonding package aimed largely at financing infrastructure projects across North Dakota is being withdrawn and will be replaced by a far less costly proposal, Republican legislative leaders said Monday.

Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, who unveiled the proposal earlier this month at a press conference teeming with lobbyists, told The Associated Press the bill would be scrubbed. A new proposal that would be at least $300 million less will be coming from the House, probably later this week, he said.

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“We are going to do a slimmed-down version,” said House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, who declined to give a dollar amount.

The GOP leaders said priority will be given only to water and flood-control projects.

“No matter what we do, there are some people who aren’t going to be happy,” Pollert said.

The original Senate proposal had not been publicly debated, but it has been the subject of several behind-the-scenes intraparty negotiations. Wardner had predicted earlier that the proposal would meet resistance in the more-conservative House.

The proposal would use earnings from the state’s oil tax savings account to pay for the borrowed money. The idea is similar to a $1.25 billion bonding proposal presented by Gov. Doug Burgum last month. But there’s one huge exception: The Republican governor’s proposal includes $700 million in low-interest loans for roads, bridges and other construction projects. The legislative leaders’ plan would offer those funds as grants. Burgum and legislative leaders tout bonding as a way to finance infrastructure projects without having to use other revenue sources or increase taxes.

Both proposals aim 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’s value is currently $7.8 billion and it’s expected to earn about $500 million in the next two-year budget cycle.

Democrats also had offered a sweeping $2 billion bonding package that includes a revolving loan fund of $750 million for school construction. The proposal was seen only as a political statement from the party that is badly outnumbered in the Legislature.

The ambitious billion-dollar bonding proposals from Republicans, Democrats and Burgum were expected to highlight the session. But the legislature that has shown little appetite for borrowing money to pay for projects, and many saw any bonding proposal doomed from the start.

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For several years, the state rode a wave of unprecedented growth — and spending — due to generally healthy commodity prices and rapid oil development in western North Dakota as the state became the No. 2 oil producer in the U.S. behind Texas. The state budget has more than doubled in the past decade, and lawmakers generally have funded projects with money on hand, instead of borrowing for them.