Today’s Ask Your Government

Dear Teri,

Can gays legally be fired in North Dakota just because they are gay? Someone said that a person can be fired just for that reason, and I just find it hard to believe.

Raymond Mason

Fargo

Thanks for writing! Before I answer your question, I just wanted to let my readers know this is my last Ask Your Government column. As you’re reading this, I’ve finished the first week of my doctoral program — only three more years to go.

Now, back to business. Here’s what Labor Commissioner Tony Weiler said in response to your question:

“Sexual orientation is not a protected category under state human rights laws or under federal law. The EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), however, is litigating some cases and arguing the firing is still based on sex and is having some success.

“So, the answer is: It will depend on the circumstances but, under state law, generally, the answer is yes.”

I then asked Barry Nelson of the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition if he wanted to provide a response. Here’s what he said:

“In North Dakota, workers can be fired ‘at will’ for a myriad of reasons. You can be fired because your boss doesn’t like your haircut and, yes, you can be fired solely because of who you have a committed and loving relationship with.

“Even though there is a human rights law in North Dakota, it does not specifically note sexual orientation as a ‘protected class,’ meaning that someone who is gay can be fired solely for that reason with impunity for the employer.

“This extends to housing as well. A landlord could legally evict someone from their housing or refuse to rent to someone because they are gay in North Dakota.

“The North Dakota Human Rights Coalition has advocated time and again for legislation that would protect all North Dakotans, no matter who they love, from infringements on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

“An attempt to pass legislation in the 2009 legislative session to include sexual orientation as a protected class from discrimination under North Dakota law was passed in the North Dakota Senate but defeated in the House of Representatives.

“The North Dakota Human Rights Coalition will continue to fight for all North Dakota residents, recognizing that its residents currently can be discriminated against with impunity.”

Today’s Ask Your Government

Dear Teri,

Is the North Dakota interstate system a two-lane highway, or is the left lane considered the passing lane? I understand that slow moving traffic should drive on the right-hand lane. I sometimes like to drive in the left lane, but only if I am not interfering with the traffic flow or driving at least the speed limit. A few years back, I was taught at a driver’s ed class that the North Dakota interstate is a two-lane highway, and you may drive on either lane and pass in either lane.

Thanks

Guy Mischel

Dickinson

Thanks for writing! Sgt. Tom Iverson of the North Dakota Highway Patrol’s Southwest Region answered this question. Here’s what he said:

“The North Dakota interstate system is considered a four-lane highway. It is further broken down to describe each side as a two-lane one-way roadway. Section 39-10-08 subsection 2 of the North Dakota Century Code states that any vehicle proceeding less than the normal speed of traffic must be driven in the right hand lane thus to not interfere with traffic proceeding at the normal speed limit. 

“As long as you are not interfering with the traffic proceeding at the normal speed limit, it is permissible to drive and pass in either the left or right lane.”

 

Dear Teri,

There is so much concern about different issues in the media right now with immigration and the vote in the upcoming November election, concerns for who’s getting what votes. My question is that if all these immigrants are illegals and aren’t citizens, why are they allowed to vote?

Thank you.

Carol Ryum

Jamestown

Thanks for writing! I talked to Secretary of State Al Jaeger about this. Here’s what he said:

“The qualifications for voting in North Dakota are that the person must be a United States citizen, 18 years of age and have lived in the precinct at least 30 days prior to the election. 

“Although a voter is asked to provide identification prior to voting, there is no requirement under state law that they have to present a birth certificate or proof of citizenship. Regardless, it is unlawful for a noncitizen to vote and, if it is discovered that they have, he or she is subject to criminal prosecution.

“I recently attended the summer conference of the National Association of Secretaries of State where this topic was discussed extensively. It is a very complex issue, and all states are trying to address it.

“While it is important to have laws and procedures in place to ensure that only qualified United States citizens are allowed to vote, it is also important that these same safeguards do not inadvertently disenfranchise a qualified citizen from his or her right to vote.”

Today’s Ask Your Government

Dear Teri,

Most of us are aware that North Dakota is running a huge surplus, due largely to oil revenue.  Yet in the past, there have been times when oil prices have dropped drastically, drying up oil money. What kind of surplus or deficit would the state be running today without oil revenue?

George Hahn

West Fargo

Thanks for writing! As I recently reported, the state is expected to have more than $2 billion in surplus and reserves by June 30, the end of the biennium. I sent your question to the Tax Department and to the Office of Management and Budget. Tax Commissioner Cory Fong sent their collaborated response, which addresses the surplus portion:

“The short answer to this question is that oil and gas taxes do not directly affect the general fund budget surplus, which is currently projected at $850 million. The general fund is a melting pot of state revenues from a variety of taxes, fees and transfers.

“The Legislature has attempted to reduce the volatility of oil and gas taxes on the general fund by limiting the amount deposited in the general fund to no more than $300 million per biennium.  Two-thirds of that amount has already been deposited in the general fund; the remaining $100 million will be in the next few months. 

“Because the general fund share of oil and gas taxes is limited by the statutory cap, additional oil and gas tax collections have no impact on the surplus. 

“There is no question oil activity affects other general fund taxes. Due to the complexities of the tax types, though, we are unable to make any definitive determination as to how much is directly attributable to the oil industry.

“A portion of sales, motor vehicle, individual income and corporate income taxes are related to oil activity, but the exact amount varies by tax type and, in most cases, is impossible to determine. For example, a farmer who receives oil and gas income will continue to file a tax return listing agriculture as the source of income, making it impossible to correctly attribute a portion of their personal income taxes to oil activity. For other tax types, such as gaming, tobacco, insurance premiums and liquor, there may likely be some relationship to oil and gas activity, but it would be even more difficult to quantify.

“We also know there has been substantial economic growth across the entire state, not just in the west. Eastern North Dakota has seen substantial expansion in their economic base contributing to the state’s positive financial status.

“Further complicating the issue, a significant portion of the current budget surplus, over $330 million, can be attributed to additional revenues and transfers that occurred in the previous fiscal year and resulted in a higher than anticipated beginning balance for the current budget period.”

So, that addresses the surplus. It’s a little easier to see the impact of oil revenue when you’re talking about the state’s reserves, which added up to $1.2 billion at the end of May. These are funds that have special rules related to how and when they can be spent.

For example, the money in the state’s Legacy Fund comes entirely from oil tax revenue. The State Treasurer’s Office said there was $446.3 million in the account as of July.

The Legacy Fund receives 30 percent of oil and gas tax revenue and will continue to grow. Money from this fund can’t be spent until 2017.

Money in the property tax relief fund also comes from oil tax revenue. The fund is allowed to grow to $341.8 million and reached that mark in June.

The foundation aid stabilization fund—which had a balance of $204 million at the end of May—receives 10 percent of the state’s extraction tax revenue, so this is another fund benefitting from oil.

Interest from this fund is transferred to the general fund, where it can be used for any state appropriation. The principal can only be spent under the governor’s order to offset foundation aid reductions to schools as a result of a revenue shortfall.

So, like many questions I get related to oil taxes, there isn’t a simple answer.

North Dakota oil tax revenue may reach $4B

BISMARCK — North Dakota collected almost $1.7 billion in oil tax revenue in the past fiscal year, nearly bringing in as much money in one year as the state expected to collect in two.

The original forecast from February 2011 predicted North Dakota would collect $2.041 billion in oil extraction and gross production taxes during the entire 2011-13 biennium.

The state is now on track to bring in between $3.5 billion and $4 billion, Tax Commissioner Cory Fong said Friday.

“It’s astounding. It’s significant,” Fong said of the state’s prosperity. “It’s been, in some cases, challenging to forecast what’s going to happen going forward.”

The original forecast predicted oil production would range between 390,000 and 425,000 barrels per day. In May, the state averaged 639,277 barrels per day, according to the state Department of Mineral Resources.

“The price (of oil) hasn’t changed much from what we anticipated,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks. “It is the production that is going through the roof … clearly the Bakken has taken off.”

The oil industry pays a 6.5 percent extraction tax and a 5 percent gross production tax to the state.

Ten years ago, North Dakota “only” brought in $119.5 million in oil tax revenue for the entire 2001-03 biennium.

Even as recently as fiscal year 2010, North Dakota was just at $582.6 million in oil revenue, about one-third of the nearly $1.7 billion from this past year.

But before North Dakotans start dreaming about how to spend all the extra cash, the reality is most of this money is already tied up.

“So even though this number grows exponentially … it’s not $1.6 billion of accessible money,” Holmberg said.

Nearly $290 million goes back to the oil-producing counties and Three Affiliated Tribes to help with oil impacts.

Another $765 million is tied up in funds with specific rules about how money can be spent, including the $446 million in the Legacy Fund. The voter-approved fund collects 30 percent of oil tax revenue, and none of the money can be spent until 2017.

That leaves the $341.8 million in property tax relief that will go out statewide and the $259 million in general fund money that legislators can spend on any state appropriation. The general fund will reach its $300 million cap in oil tax revenue shortly.

Just like the money collected this past year, additional revenue in the coming year will go through the same state formula that whittles money into assorted funds with specific rules on how that money can be spent.

Rep. Shirley Meyer, D-Dickinson, would like to see lawmakers make some changes to these rules during the next legislative session, particularly how much money goes back to the oil-producing counties.

She pointed to the $118 million in direct distributions to oil cities and counties compared to the $1.66 billion in overall revenue.

“It (the $118 million) is absolutely not enough money to deal with our infrastructure and our needs out there if we want to continue this development,” she said. “We have to invest these dollars right now so we can have a more sustainable infrastructure, and it’s going to take money to do it.”

Oil taxes aren’t the only revenue blowing past state projections.

North Dakota collected $1 billion in sales taxes in the past fiscal year, nearly $365 million more than expected.

Motor vehicle excise taxes also exceeded expectations with $122 million in revenue, or $32.8 million more than anticipated.

Individual and corporate income tax revenue reached nearly $630 million, or $300 million more than the April 2011 forecast.

There’s a common assumption that the state’s success is due strictly to oil, but there’s economic growth across the state, Fong said.

“Without a doubt, oil and oil production is having a significant impact on our economy, but for the most part, we’re seeing other industry sectors doing very well,” he said.

Later this month, the Office of Management and Budget is planning to release an updated forecast for the last year of this biennium and a preliminary forecast for the 2013-15 biennium.

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Today’s Ask Your Government

Dear Teri,

I recently read an article regarding oil money for the people of the state of North Dakota. I live in Hannaford, N.D., and even though it is a town of about 130 people, we live on a very popular BNSF rail line. A 110-car train comes through this town every 45 minutes or so.

With the increase of oil production in the western half of the state, trains carrying 100 cars of petroleum have become a regular sight to see since the boom. Even though we are on the eastern side of North Dakota, is there any way our fire department could get money to improve our trucks or equipment?

Thanks,

Marc Haaland

Hannaford

Thanks for writing! I went two routes with providing an answer. The first has to do with the state’s energy impact grants (which I think are what you’re inquiring about) and then what other help may be available.

It’s true the state Land Board has provided money to help fire departments impacted by the rapid growth that has come along with oil activity. However, energy impact grants have been limited to the 17 oil- and gas-producing counties in western North Dakota.

The biggest reasons for this are: these counties are seeing the greatest impacts of the oil activity, there is limited funding available and most of the money for these grants came from within these counties in the first place.

Here’s the back story:

State law directs oil and gas impact grants to be provided to cities, counties, townships, school districts and other taxing districts impacted by energy development and production, said Lance Gaebe, director of the Energy Infrastructure and Impact Office.

Applications from North Dakota counties with active drilling rigs and oil and gas production receive primary consideration for funding, he said.

The majority of the money for this grant program comes from a tax that oil companies operating in these counties have to pay to the state.

The Legislature agreed to set aside $100 million of this tax revenue to help oil counties with energy impacts. Legislators later approved another $35 million in general fund money after seeing the need for more funding.

Although $135 million is a relatively big chunk of money, state officials get requests from the 17 oil counties for millions and millions of more dollars than are available. (As a side note, just a few years ago, there was $8 million available for this program until western North Dakota convinced the Legislature it wasn’t enough.)

Earlier this year, the Energy Infrastructure and Impact Office received requests for $40.4 million in grants during the emergency services funding round, which included fire departments. Granted, not all of these requests met the emergency services criteria, but most did.

The Land Board ended up approving $12 million in grants to benefit emergency services, with $7.45 million specifically benefitting fire departments and joint law enforcement/fire/ambulance projects.

Gaebe said an additional $4 million will be awarded to emergency response services starting this fall. The remaining energy impact money primarily goes to help with infrastructure needs, especially within the oil cities to support housing growth.

Gaebe said state officials consider the following when awarding grants: how much the need is a result of direct oil and gas development; readiness of the project for implementation; health, welfare and safety considerations; and financial need.

Those who do get a grant still have to come up with a portion of the cost of the project.

Since this program isn’t of immediate help for your area, I also contacted North Dakota Firefighter’s Association Executive Director Renee Loh. Here’s what she said:

“There are programs for grant requests. However, fire departments across the nation are having the same issues, leading to a probable reduction in the chances of receiving grant awards.

“Some of the grants that are available in North Dakota are: Assistance to Firefighter Grant, Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grants, volunteer fire department grants through the North Dakota Forest Service, private grants such as WSI’s ergonomic grant, Department of Emergency Services grants and, of course, the tremendous energy impact grants.

“The Firefighter’s Association sends out immediate information on any possible funding sources. It is worthy to report that many more fire departments have sent in requests recently and, when they call for advice in filling out the forms, we assist them with understanding how to respond to the grant application and what the peer reviewers will be looking for in the grant request. 

“When I received your email, the first thought was, ‘This question posed to you could have been written by any fire department in North Dakota.’  The dynamics have changed across North Dakota’s landscape and, in some ways, each fire department in North Dakota has been touched. 

“There are chemicals that are being trucked, railed and transported throughout the state that have brought the fire departments to a greater level of incident responsibility. And the difficulty is that the fire departments are not as prepared, and they would like to be, but they do not have the financial resources. 

“It is vital that the fire departments receive support so that there are an increased number of trained, frontline firefighters that are available to respond in the North Dakota communities.  With continued state growth, the incidents will continue to grow.”

See you soon, North Dakota

BISMARCK — In less than a week, I’ll be living in a state farther south and way too many hours away from North Dakota.

I’ve left North Dakota a few times in my 30 years for opportunities elsewhere. All in all, it adds up to about two years away, and I always came back eventually.

I’m hopeful I can come back again to my home state a few years from now. We North Dakotans have a bond unlike so many other states, and I’ve always appreciated that.

I have two stories running this weekend, Ask Your Government columns that will run through August and a back-to-school series set for Aug. 12-17. So, you’ll see a bit more of me before I disappear from the newspaper pages. I’ll be off learning how to make the industry I love even better through a PhD program.

Despite the assorted times I ventured away, I always kept my North Dakota residency (save for those brief two months I was a Minnesotan until I hopped back over the border). You’re talking to someone who kept her car clock on Mountain Time for years even if I was living in Central Time; I was that much of a western North Dakota diehard. (Hazen switched to Central Time in recent years, so I finally gave up on Mountain Time.)

I’ll continue to keep my North Dakota residency as long as they’ll let me on this latest adventure.  I’m proud to be a North Dakotan and am thankful for everything the state has done for me. Hopefully I’ll be back soon.

Dalrymple proposes school aid; Taylor unveils child care plan

BISMARCK — Gov. Jack Dalrymple proposed Wednesday a $225 million plan to help schools facing rapid student enrollment growth, a plan his challenger says was needed sooner.

Dalrymple shared his proposal to enhance state support for these schools during the North Dakota Governor’s Education Summit in Dickinson.

 “The state’s strong economy is creating new jobs, new career opportunities and it has played a major role in reversing the state’s long-standing population decline,” Dalrymple said in a statement.  “With growth have come challenges for school districts, particularly those in the state’s oil-producing counties. We have provided significant resources to assist these schools, but we can do more to ensure that our educators have the resources they need to provide the best education possible.”

Dalrymple’s proposal includes:

-Setting aside $200 million in the state’s strategic investment and improvement fund to provide low-interest loans to qualified school districts throughout the state—not just in the oil counties—  for the construction of new schools or for improvements or expansions to existing school buildings.

Schools could receive up to $20 million for a project and interest rates as low as 1 percent. Loan applications would be received and approved by the superintendent of public instruction based on need and the relative wealth of the school district.

Loans would not be considered a debt for school districts in oil-producing counties, but rather a pre-payment of future oil tax allocations.

The strategic investment and improvement fund receives revenue from state-owned minerals and from oil taxes. The Department of Trust Lands tentatively predicts there will be $500 million to $600 million in the fund by the end of the biennium.

-Setting aside $25 million in oil and gas impact grant funds during the 2013-15 biennium for rapidly growing schools impacted by oil development.

Dalrymple said this money could be used for teacher housing, transportation issues or “anything that they can show is an impact due to oil development.”

These grants are funded with oil tax revenue. Dalrymple has said he again wants the state to set aside a total of $135 million for impact grants for the next biennium to help local governments in oil country.

During the past school year, the state provided more than $10 million in impact grants to address school needs in oil-producing counties.

-Forming an advisory group of western school superintendents, teachers, counselors and school board members to keep state officials informed of school enrollments and immediate challenges. Dalrymple also plans to soon appoint an adviser on rapidly growing schools who will assist superintendents and other school officials with planning and growth strategies.

State Superintendent Wayne Sanstead said he was “encouraged” by Dalrymple’s proposal.

“I think the bottom line is that this clearly was a pledge to do more in the world of state support for the schools that are struggling to meet the challenges,” Sanstead said. “It’s state support that the western schools are looking for.”

Sanstead said he knows there will be people who say the proposal is far too little or is far too much and doesn’t include them.

“I’m still mindful there’s a legislative-making process. I’m sure the debate will go forward,” Sanstead said. “But at least this is a great beginning.”

Senate Minority Leader Ryan Taylor of Towner said his gubernatorial campaign has consistently pushed the issue of education funding in oil impact areas and made education a centerpiece of his vision for North Dakota’s future.

“There seems to be an increase of summits, news releases and plans that might take effect midway through 2013 now that we’re three months from an election,” Taylor said in a statement. “In a Taylor administration, needs would be addressed when they are plain to see, not months and years later.”

Oil tax revenue is piling up at the state Capitol instead of going to work right away to handle the impacts of growth, Taylor said.

Taylor also unveiled a plan Wednesday to address child care needs in North Dakota. The plan comes one week after the Land Board approved a $625,000 pilot project to help address the child care shortage in five oil cities. Each received $125,000.

Taylor’s plan would involve spending $30.6 million in 2013-2015 for child care facility grants, which would cover up to 50 percent of the cost of facility building and equipment in areas of high need.

He also wants to spend up to $15 million for child care workforce development grants and provide additional tax credits and incentives to help communities keep child care available.

The money for the plan would come from the state’s general fund, he said.

Taylor pointed to a study on the child care needs in Williston that shows it would take an investment of $28 million to meet 50 percent of the child care demand.

“Throwing $125,000 at a $28 million problem is a lot like putting a Band-Aid on a broken arm.  It is simply inadequate,” Taylor said in a statement. “Families in North Dakota deserve real leadership in Bismarck that will address the child care crisis in a productive and meaningful way, not reactive leadership that is content doing too little, too late. In a Taylor administration, you’ll see real leadership come from the governor’s office.”

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Dalrymple proposes funding plan for rapidly growing schools

BISMARCK — Gov. Jack Dalrymple wants to see more state money go to schools facing rapid student enrollment growth, a plan his challenger says was needed sooner.

Dalrymple shared his proposal to enhance state support for these schools during the North Dakota Governor’s Education Summit in Dickinson.

 “The state’s strong economy is creating new jobs, new career opportunities and it has played a major role in reversing the state’s long-standing population decline,” Dalrymple said in a statement.  “With growth have come challenges for school districts, particularly those in the state’s oil-producing counties. We have provided significant resources to assist these schools, but we can do more to ensure that our educators have the resources they need to provide the best education possible.”

Dalrymple’s proposal includes:

-Setting aside $200 million in the state’s strategic investment and improvement fund to provide low-interest loans to qualified school districts throughout the state for the construction of new schools or for improvements or expansions to existing school buildings.

The loan fund will be in addition to a $50 million school loan program provided through the state’s Coal Development Trust Fund.

-Setting aside $25 million in oil and gas impact grant funds during the 2013-15 biennium for rapidly growing schools impacted by oil development. This fund also receives its money from oil tax revenue. Dalrymple is proposing the state again sets aside a total of $135 million in impact grants for the next biennium to help local governments in oil country.

During the past school year, the state provided more than $10 million in impact grants to address school needs in oil-producing counties.

-Forming an advisory group of western school superintendents, teachers, counselors and school board members to keep state officials informed of school enrollments and immediate challenges. The governor will also appoint an adviser on rapidly growing schools who will assist superintendents and other school officials with planning and growth strategies.

Senate Minority Leader Ryan Taylor of Towner said his gubernatorial campaign has consistently pushed the issue of education funding in oil impact areas and made education a centerpiece of his vision for North Dakota’s future.

“There seems to be an increase of summits, news releases and plans that might take effect midway through 2013 now that we’re three months from an election,” Taylor said in a statement. “In a Taylor administration, needs would be addressed when they are plain to see, not months and years later.”

Oil tax revenue is piling up at the state Capitol instead of going to work right away to handle the impacts of growth, Taylor said.

Check back for more on this story.

Today’s Ask Your Government

Dear Teri,

I was wondering why the state doesn’t have any signs on the interstates letting drivers know of services offered at the next exit. Tourist and local travelers find this helpful whether it be food, gas or lodging. Many states offer this, and I’ve always found it helpful. 

Thanks!

Patty Carriere

Fargo

Thanks for writing! Jamie Olson of the North Dakota Department of Transportation gave this response:

“The North Dakota Department of Transportation follows the North Dakota Century Code 24-17, Advertising Adjacent to Highways, which prohibits the use of these types of signs, commonly referred to as ‘logo’ signs. Any exceptions to this would require legislative action.

“Thank you for contacting the North Dakota Department of Transportation.”

After hearing from Jamie, I looked up that state law. It’s four pages long, but here’s the beginning of it:

“It is hereby declared to be in the public interest reasonably to regulate advertising devices along the highways hereinafter specified while, at the same time, recognizing that both the convenience of travel and the interests of the economy as a whole require a reasonable freedom to advertise.

“It is the intention of the legislative assembly in this chapter to provide a statutory basis for the reasonable regulation, but not the prohibition, of outdoor advertising … ”

You can read this entire section at http://legis.nd.gov/cencode/t24c17.pdf.

 

Dear readers,

It’s been my privilege to write this column and help you get answers from your state government officials the past two years.

It’s with mixed feelings that I let you know that I am leaving my job at Forum Communications later this week to pursue a doctorate in another state. I’ve been honored to spend a total of seven years with the company and to get to know so many of you through my work for The Forum, Grand Forks Herald, Jamestown Sun and Dickinson Press.

When I first brought up the idea of doing this column, a Capitol reporter in another state told me there was no way it would work in his state. North Dakota is fortunate to have officials willing to take the time to respond to the public.

I want to especially thank Jamie Olson of the North Dakota Department of Transportation for her help. I never dreamed there were so many transportation-related questions of interest to readers, and she’s been terrific about taking the time to answer so many of your questions (including the one featured today).

Without her cooperation, this column would have been in trouble since she answered 20 percent of the questions.

My column will continue to run until the end of August. Thank you all for your great questions these past few years. You can be proud of your role in keeping North Dakota government accountable and transparent.

- Teri Finneman