Where’s the money, Prairie Dog?

Previously paved roads in Richland County are being de-paved as it becomes too costly to maintain them. 

House Bill 1066, known as Operation Prairie Dog or the Prairie Dog Bill, was meant to help fund infrastructure, but in its first biennium, the bill has come short of that initial promise.

Passed by the 66th Legislative Assembly in 2019, the Prairie Dog Bill made changes to the gas gross production tax distribution formula.

The Prairie Dog Bill “provides for a new source of infrastructure funding for cities, counties and townships in non-oil-producing counties and airports throughout the state,” according to the State Treasurer’s Office.

If the Prairie Dog Bill had worked as initially intended, funds from gas and oil tax revenue would have filled “buckets.” Once a bucket was filled, money would begin flowing to the next bucket in line and so on.

The 11 buckets in order are:

• State general fund - $200 million

• Tax relief fund - $200 million

• Budget stabilization fund - $48.4 million

• State general fund - $200 million

• Lignite research fund - $10 million

• State disaster relief fund - (was not filled)

• Municipal infrastructure fund - $29.9 million

• Strategic investments and improvements fund (SIIF) - $400 million

• County and township infrastructure fund - $29.9 million

• Municipal/county and township infrastructure funds - $170 million (split 50/50 between municipal infrastructure and county and township infrastructure)

• Airport infrastructure fund - $20 million

• Strategic investments and improvements fund - remainder

As of July 2021, the end of the biennium for the Prairie Dog Bill, the first six buckets have been filled.

The SIIF bucket, just ahead of the county and township infrastructure bucket, is at approximately $350 million, $50 million short of it beginning to “overflow” into the counties and townships.

The county and township buckets never began filling before the end of the biennium. This is due in part, according to the OMB website, to falling oil prices during the biennium.

Now, the buckets have begun refilling from the beginning, starting with the state general fund.

The SIFF bucket has drawn criticism from Richland County commissioners as it was not included in the first draft of the bill and was added later. County commissioners see it as taking funds from infrastructure the county desperately needs.

Money in the SIIF bucket “can be used for improving state infrastructure and for initiatives to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of state government, as determined by the legislature, in accordance with NDCC Section 15-08.1-08,” according to the OMB.

“I think that when they shoved the SIIF bucket in front of counties and townships that sent a strong statement. That’s being overlooked. You’re not important, this is more important than you are. We’re at the very end of the line,” Richland County Commissioner Rollie Ehlert said.

The Prairie Dog Bill allocates up to $115 million per biennium to non-oil-producing counties and townships, of which 13 percent would be given to townships, roughly $9,300 for each. Eighty-seven percent would be given to counties.

The county and township infrastructure funds were to be used exclusively for road and bridge projects in counties.

Eligible projects for the fund include: “projects associated with the construction of new unpaved and paved road and bridge infrastructure or associated with the maintenance, repair or replacement of existing unpaved and paved road and bridge infrastructure,” according to the OMB website.

The county did get some money for infrastructure from the American Rescue Plan and the CARES Act amounting to approximately $3.1 million dollars, but it pales in comparison to the millions the county would have received from the Prairie Dog Bill.

The money from those bills come with greater restrictions than the Prairie Dog Bill.

“You’ve got to remember too that the American Rescue Plan compared to the Prairie Dog Bill, the stipulations are so much different. The Prairie Dog Bill was supposed to be more free for the county to use as they wish for their needs. And then in these other programs they kind of strap you and you’ve got to jump through their hurdles to be able to spend them,” Richland County Engineer Jesse Sedler said.

Sedler and Ehlert said the county was anticipating receiving and utilizing money from the Prairie Dog Bill.

The county highway department has been operating at the same budget for years, in part because commissioners don’t want to overburden taxpayers.

Infrastructure work is becoming more expensive, in part because of COVID-19 shortages.

“It’s hard. We’re at the point where we’re maintaining. We can never break out and get ahead … Every time we go and look, there’s another crossing we got to fix and what do you do if you don’t fix them? Then when they fall apart, and you got a hole in the road,” Sedler said.

These issues manifest themselves in several ways. In one part of the county, a paved road is being ripped up and replaced with gravel because it’s too expensive to fix and maintain.

One of the most prominent issues is the decrease in weight limits for aging bridges. In a county where agriculture is the driver of the economy, infrastructure is crucial.

“Back in 1912, 1920, when a lot of these structures were placed, we didn’t have the vehicles we have now and to get the weight and the load restrictions we need on them, obviously costs a lot more,” Sedler said.

Ehlert echoed Sedler’s sentiments.

“For a passenger car to take a four or five or a six mile detour around a bridge is not probably that big of a deal. But when you’re talking about a combine with a 40 foot header or these big tractors with tillage equipment, that’s not an easy trip,” Ehlert said,

Ehlert has raised his concern to local legislatures multiple times as it became more evident that the county’s buckets weren’t going to fill.

“I brought up that topic when they (legislators) were at science school with the legislative body. I went to Hankinson, I brought it up there again. They did not have an answer. And it was at that point that I realized that we’re going to get zero dollars,” Ehlert said.

Both Sedler and Ehlert agreed on the solution to rectify the issue: at the start of the new biennium, continue filling the buckets from where they left off, rather than start from the beginning.

District 26 Reps. Kathy Skroch and Sebastian Ertlet didn’t respond by press time for comment on if the legislature had plans to get funds for county and township infrastructure.

Skroch voted in favor of the bill when it was first passed and Ertelt voted against it.

“Ag is king, but we’ve got to look out for all these other guys too. I mean, we got roads out there that were once paved that we’re now depaving,” Sedler said.

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