BISMARCK — North Dakota lawmakers said Thursday, Aug. 15, they’ll seek the public’s help to determine how to use money generated by the state’s $6.2 billion oil tax piggy bank.
A special committee made up of legislative leaders from both parties charged with examining ideas for spending Legacy Fund earnings convened for the first time Thursday morning at the state Capitol. The committee laid the groundwork for its discussions leading up to the 2021 session.
Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said the interim meetings will provide lawmakers an opportunity to hear from “average Joe public” about ways to use the voter-approved fund.
“They call me every week and they question why we have all this money and we’re not doing anything with it,” he said. “I think we need to get out and get some feedback from the public.”
The panel’s chairman, House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, plans to call the committee together four more times, and at least two of those meetings will be outside Bismarck. The date and location for its next meeting haven’t been announced.
Sen. Jessica Unruh, R-Beulah, called for an “extra effort” to alert the public of their upcoming meetings to encourage participation. Grand Forks Republican Sen. Ray Holmberg suggested convening in the evening to accommodate people who work during the day.
“I think we want to get input from the public outside of the echo chamber that is this building,” he said.
The panel’s meeting came after lawmakers rejected several ideas for using the Legacy Fund during this year’s session. Among them were bills to reduce state income taxes and to fund paid family medical leave.
Gov. Doug Burgum pitched $300 million worth of Legacy Fund projects, including the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library. That project received approval using other funding sources.
Ultimately, the Republican-controlled Legislature set aside Legacy Fund earnings to balance the state’s books, replenish a constitutional education fund and boost a rainy day fund.
Voters created the Legacy Fund in 2010 by earmarking 30% of oil and gas tax revenue, but the constitutional language didn’t outline specific purposes for the money. Lawmakers were prevented from tapping the fund until mid-2017.
The fund was worth more than $6.2 billion at the end of May, and $455 million in earnings were transferred to the state’s general fund in July, according to state investment officials.
Some lawmakers have feared voters will seek to dedicate Legacy Fund money for imprudent purposes through the ballot box if the Legislature doesn’t act. The committee’s discussion highlighted recent budget woes in Alaska, which uses oil money to pay its residents an annual dividend but doesn’t have state personal income or sales taxes.
Bob Harms, a member of the committee that advocated for the Legacy Fund, predicted lawmakers will hear proposals to eliminate property taxes. He urged patience and said the fund was intended to “take care of future North Dakotans” when oil revenues decline.
“It shouldn’t be easy to spend hundreds of millions of dollars of Legacy Fund earnings,” he said. “Let’s take our time and let’s get it right.”