Q&A with District 14 Representative Jon Nelson
With the 64th Legislative Assembly coming up on Jan. 6, 2015, Tribune Reporter Bryce Berginski sat down with District 14 Representative Jon Nelson to discuss his thoughts and some things on his plate for the upcoming session.
Q: What are your thoughts going into the 64th Legislative Assembly?
The biggest thing is the budget in North Dakota, given the fact that oil revenues have fallen. That’s going to be a consideration because of the number of infrastructure projects that are funded by oil revenue. There’ll be some hesitation to go forward as fast as we have in the past. I’ve listened to our budget analysts several weeks ago – Moody’s Analytical, who does the budget projections in North Dakota – they predicted a downturn for about a six-month period. They do come back in early March to revise that forecast, and that’ll be a big report. Given the fact that county and township roads are funded through the oil tax revenue, that’s a dangerous situation.
The other thing that’s concerning with that is if the price (of oil) in North Dakota stays below $54 for five months in a row, a trigger kicks in and the extraction tax is eliminated for a two-year period. That would be a major consequence to state funding if that occurs. The Governor laid out a pretty aggressive plan in his address.
The thing that interests me the most is school funding. We have some revisions [to our funding formula] that I feel need to be made for rural schools that aren’t experiencing rapid growth. Although Rugby, for example, has had a bump in enrollment this year, it is a year-by-year situation. Those schools that are stagnant or have a declining enrollment need to be made whole in this formula and that’s an issue. We’re going to work very hard to find some fixes for that situation.
Rural healthcare has always been a passion of mine, and we’ll continue to get some policy changes to make it viable going forward. That’s in danger as well in many communities; rural hospitals are struggling in many areas and not everybody lives a half-an-hour away from a major regional center. We need to have strong, vibrant rural hospitals and health care. Public health care is another system that needs to be considered and made whole. They’re asking a lot for that.
Another issue I’m most concerned about is water policy in this state. There was a major change in state Water Commission policy that was developed over the past year. We’re looking at some options legislatively to address that.
Q: Are you on any committees this session?
I serve on the House Appropriations Committee, I serve in the Human Resource sub-section. We have three sub-sections in the Appropriations Committee; education, government operations and human resources. In our sub-section we have the Department of Health, Department of Human Services and the Department of Corrections budgets. Human Services is the largest budget in the state of North Dakota, so that’s a huge undertaking. This will be my fifth session in that committee.
Q: What are your thoughts on the transportation of oil by rail? How do you think it could be improved?
The short answer is it could be improved by putting oil in pipelines rather than rail. That’s a larger issue than North Dakota, and we’ve been very proactive in building more pipeline capacity to address the gridlock. In the meantime, this isn’t going to happen overnight. The state has developed a state rail safety plan so the state and federal governments have some responsibilities. I think there will be more oversight from a state standpoint. Quite honestly, if you look at Rugby for example, there’s nothing we can do from a state standpoint. Burlington Northern owns the track, they’re doing business as they’re contracted to do. We need to look long-term at pipelines rather than rail. There’s a field north of Towner where there’s pipe being dropped off everyday to begin construction of the Sandpiper Pipeline. We’ve permitted it through North Dakota, but it stops at the border at this point in time because Minnesota hasn’t provided the permits yet to allow it to go to through their pipeline connection. Hopefully that’ll happen, I would guess there’s a good chance of that if they’re going to start construction through here, and that’s major. I’d have to look over my notes but I know it’s over 200,000 barrels a day that would be transported through there, and that would take a number of trains off the tracks. But until pumping and drilling slows down in this state, that would barely keep up with growth if it were to come online within the dates project.
Looking at the bright side of this oil situation is maybe we can play catch-up on this infrastructure situation. There again we need some help from outside of North Dakota, whether it’s the federal government, regulatory administrations or border states. We have to have that cooperation, we can’t do that much more from a North Dakota standpoint.
Q: Are there any items of business left over from the last session to be decided this session?
There’s a couple of things. The new medical school in Grand Forks. We funded it, it was a $120 million project, we funded $62 million in the first biennium with the understanding that when we come back this winter the remaining dollars would be funded. That’s in the Governor’s budget. There’s an example of funding mechanism that was projected to take two bienniums and we need legislation to continue that. The building is framed and being built, so I don’t think there’s any question we will finish that project. That has some implications for all of North Dakota, and in rural medicine because of the shortage of health care professionals. That will increase the size of healthcare workers at UND, so the pool should get a bit deeper going forward.
Recently there’s been some discussion with the department of corrections and a quota system for counties to accept prisoners. Burleigh County is overrun with prisoners being sent to the penitentiary, and I’m a little concerned about that policy shift. The judges in the South Central district have the ability, currently, to sentence prisoners where they see fit. There’s a number of sentences that are taking place on misdemeanor crimes that are being sent to the state penitentiary, which isn’t the way it’s supposed to work. It’s supposed to be for felony convictions. This is kind of a one-size-fits-all fix to that, and it could have some implications for counties like ours. I haven’t seen how Pierce fits into the quota system but because of our regional facility I think it would be hard to get a fair number of what the state would accept based on our population. We do have people here already that would probably count toward our quota, that wouldn’t be fair. That’s going to be a very difficult situation to negotiate with the department, and I understand their opinion in this because they’re getting overrun. We just added 350-400 beds in the penitentiary, and (they’re) full. We don’t want to build any more prisons. We have to address corrections in some fashion, and I know there are some proposals to utilize facilities like ours in Rugby in the process. I’d much rather see that that is the route that we take rather than limiting the number of prisoners they can accept from the state standpoint, and if the counties have to pay for the additional prisoners that go down there it’s going to raise property taxes, it’s that simple. I don’t think anybody would support that.
Q: Is there any legislation you’re personally looking to pass this session?
I have one bill in the hopper right now, and it’s a real simple bill. There’s a group from Fargo who contacted me to sponsor a bill, the Outdoor Heritage Foundation. What they do is provide guided hunts for young people with serious terminal illnesses, much like the Make-a-Wish Foundation, and they would like to provide one elk hunt and one moose hunt in North Dakota.
Q: How are you and Sen. Jerry Klein working together to best represent District 14?
First of all, District 14 is a very large area. The northern end of Pierce County is 40 miles from the Canadian border, and the southern part of our district is south of I-94. The southern part of Kidder County is 20 miles from the South Dakota border. It’s a very large area, and to acquaint yourself with every part of District 14 is very difficult, it’s 100 miles wide. We visit at length about issues in our district. We met with area superintendents to discuss education matters in this area, and a number of local administrators put that on. We attend a number of meetings.
Q: How do you plan on being accountable to District 14 and its constituents?
We are very easy to approach in the Legislative process. If I know someone’s coming to the Legislative session I will find some time to meet with them personally. If there’s a school group coming down, I’ll make all the arrangements to visit with them and have a place to sit with us on floor sessions. I generally write some newspaper columns in the beginning of the session, it does get a little tougher to meet those deadlines as the session goes on. I always list my email address, it’s a very good way to communicate with myself or any legislator. We have access to those emails as they come in, and it’s easier to respond. Personal letters are still used to some degree, but that’s dropped off as electronic mail and texts have gone forward. I’ve always been available for legislative forums on weekends, and I list my cellphone, whether it’s on my card or in the Legislative directory. I try to answer most concerns people have and will continue to do that.
Q: Is there anything else you think should be mentioned?
The state of North Dakota’s in a different place when we were not that long ago. Even with the concern over declining oil revenues and expansion I think it’s a great opportunity for our state. It’s just wonderful to see jobs in North Dakota where people are coming back to or coming to North Dakota for the first time for careers here. That’s something we desired for a long time, and now it’s a reality. I don’t think it’s going to change. There’s so much opportunity we’re in the midst of and I think the ball has started to roll down the hill. We need to continue that so people have a place to live, and I would like to see it grow some more.
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