Sometimes being a Chamber employee comes with some pretty sweet perks – like a bus ride to the North Dakota State Capitol and pre-scheduled meetings with lawmakers. On February 3, I got to be part of a Fargo metro delegation to Bismarck, boarding a bus with more than 30 community and business leaders to meet with legislators, attend committee hearings and enjoy a reception with lawmakers.
A common theme ran through our discussions: the private sector is the best solution to state issues.
“We need to create the environment for the private sector to solve problems,” said Senator Tony Grindberg, District 41. He referenced housing needs, oil refinery needs and enhanced cellular service as issues that could be positively affected if lawmakers were to incentivize private industry to contribute solutions.
Grindberg and House Majority Leader Al Carlson, District 41, agreed, legislating in a state with a significant budget surplus presents unique challenges. Carlson assured the group that lawmakers are not spending all the oil money, but instead saving a large portion of it for future needs.
“The reason North Dakota’s been successful over the years is we haven’t put too much reliance on any one tax,” Carlson said. Lawmakers are considering lowering the state corporate tax and a grassroots group is urging consideration of a reduction on oil extraction tax.
“The House of Representatives is the ‘People’s House,’” said Carlson. “Our job is to represent the people who put us here and our responsibility is to sort through priorities and make sure they are funded.” Every legislator I spoke with was proud to point out elements of the North Dakota legislative process that make it unique.
Dubbing the process “citizen legislation,” Grindberg referred to the pragmatic, down-to-earth, roll up your sleeves attitude of his colleagues. Constituents enjoy unfettered access to their lawmakers, all are welcome to testify in committee hearings, and all ideas are considered.
As I sat with him on the Senate floor, Senator John M. Andrist, District 2, pointed to the lack of individual offices for legislators and the fact that they share a pool of legislative aides rather than having staff as evidence of the frugal nature of the North Dakota session.
Seventy-nine years young and a veteran of the newspaper industry, Andrist enthusiastically walked me through the day’s schedule and process. He’s been serving since 1993 and intends to do so as long as he’s ‘fully capable.’ From Crosby, he’s seen the impacts and benefits of the oil reserves first-hand and was quick to assure me that some of the money will assist in the Fargo flooding fight.
That was another recurring (somewhat surprising) theme: the mutual support of needs between the Western and Eastern parts of the state.
E. Ward Koeser, 16-year Mayor of Williston, N.D., painted a picture of the new Williston for our group, which includes a 35 percent population increase over the last four years. While acknowledging his gratitude for an industry that is blessing the North Dakota with the resources necessary to address statewide issues, he points to the needs created by an influx of residents that placed Williston second in the state ($106 million) in building permits last year. One such immediate need is a major upgrade to the city’s sanitary sewer system, amounting to $111 million in infrastructure.
“Every 20 new rigs equal 1,500 workers,” Koeser said. “An average family of two means 3,000 new residents.” Koeser said there are currently 65 rigs in operation in Williston and the number is expected to grow to 235 by the end of the year.
“The impact is felt dramatically,” said Koeser. “Things are wild and crazy in Williston. We have a new appreciation of Eastern North Dakota’s needs.” Willison is also number two in the state in taxable sales, but the strong economy has two sides.
Main street businesses have a greatly expanded customer pool, but competition for workers is fierce in a landscape of high paying oil jobs. He said they desperately need restaurants but a worker shortage makes it hard to find staff. Koeser said oil larger companies in the area want employees with permanent housing, which reduces staff turnover.
He had a message for our delegation: “If you are a builder and want to help us solve our problems, we’ve got tremendous opportunities for you in Williston.”
Koeser, who has been interview by The New York Times and CNN recently, says of his more aggressive work with state legislators that he’s never felt this level of statewide support for his region and it’s appreciated. “When you need help we’ll be there to help and know you’ll help us.”
My experience was part of “City Day on the Hill,” a new collaboration between the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce, Fargo-Moorhead Association of Realtors, Fargo-Moorhead Convention & Visitors Bureau, Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corporation and the Home Builders Association of Fargo-Moorhead. The group has a similar trip scheduled to visit the Minnesota state capitol on Tuesday, February 22. More than 40 representatives of the five associations participated.