Three incumbents, one former legislator and a newcomer are seeking to represent District 2 in the North Dakota Legislature on Nov. 6. District 2 includes Burke, Divide and portions of Williams and Mountrail counties.
Sen. John Andrist, R-Crosby, who has served in the Senate for 20 years, is being challenged by Lynn Jacobson, a Democrat from Alamo.
Andrist has been active in his community as member and president of the St. Luke's Hospital Board for 25 years, president of Kiwanis, Jaycees and Business Builders. He chaired fund-raising campaigns to build the local hospital and nursing home in the 1960s, spearheaded the more recent assisted living center construction and has led other philanthropic activities in his home community. He also served as president of the National Newspaper Association, North Dakota Newspaper Association and Prairie Public Broadcasting.
Jacobson is an agricultural producer who serves on the North Dakota Farm Service Agency State Committee and the boards of Burke Divide Electric, North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives and, Crosby Country Club. He is a township clerk/treasurer. He also has served on the Concordia Lutheran Church Council, as president of the Crosby Curling Club and on the North Dakota Farmers Union Policy and Action Committee.
In the House race, Reps. David Rust and Bob Skarphol, both R-Tioga, are challenged by former legislator Dorvan Solberg, a Democrat from Ray.
Rust grew up on a farm in central North Dakota and spent 41 years as a teacher and school administrator in North Dakota, including 28 years as superintendent of Tioga Public Schools. He retired in 2008. He serves on the Tioga Economic Development Corp. board of directors and as president of the Tioga Medical Center's board of directors. He was elected to the North Dakota House in 2008, serving on the Education and Agriculture committees.
Skarphol is a lifelong resident of District 2. He and his wife own a family farm and operate a contract pumping business. He has served in nine legislative sessions and is currently chairman of the House Education and Environment sub-section of Appropriations.
Solberg is a life-long farmer and rancher in Williams County. He served in the state House from 1999 to 2008. He has served on the board of Mountrail/Williams Rural Electric Coop for 28 years, including 19 years as chairman. He served on various other boards in his community and is a member of Ray Lutheran Church.
The candidates provided responses to the following questions:
1. Do you support continued property-tax relief in the upcoming biennium, and if so, what form should it take?
Andrist: I do. There are only three things you can do with a surplus as large as we have in North Dakota. Spend it, save it, or give it back. We have been doing all three, although most of the spending increase has been in grants to schools and local government. It has been right, and we should continue.
Jacobson: Property-tax relief is a concern for a good portion of the residents of District 2 along with residents of our whole state. Property taxes are locally assessed and collected so the real question is: Should the state take a larger role in funding that which is now funded locally? Approximately 35 percent of the property taxes on agricultural land in my home county are going to our schools. I believe that this is the area to start with. Secondly, state participation in funding our rural road systems can certainly be improved. Our townships and counties simply can't keep up with the costs related to building and maintaining our roads, especially in oil country where the road system is being pushed far beyond what it was designed for. If the state were to provide a greater payment for township and county road mileage, the result would be a lowering of local property taxes. Finally, relief needs to be in the form of long-term solutions, not short-term political headlines.
Solberg: I believe the Legislature needs to appropriate more tax dollars to our local government. This will give property-tax relief to the citizens of North Dakota.
Skarphol: I believe a new and more meaningful method for property-tax relief needs to be developed. There are several alternatives being discussed, but I would probably favor the concept of covering the entire cost of a "core curricula" in K-12 education with state funds provided the details can be satisfactorily work out.
Rust: Absolutely! Currently, property-tax relief is accomplished through a buy-down in school district levies of "up to" 75 mills. This has been a somewhat effective way to do it, but it isn't without its problems as some taxpayers realize the entire 75 mills and others don't. I believe the Legislative Assembly should look at alternatives that may be more equitable and sustainable. Since political subdivisions from the county on down levy the property taxes, this is a complex issue that will require considerable thought and research to guarantee that it is done right. There's more than one way to do it. I believe the Legislature will not only continue the relief but attempt to reform and expand the current system.
2. Should there be changes in the oil tax distribution to cities and counties?
Jacobson: Absolutely! The formulas must be improved and caps removed so that a greater percentage of the oil tax distribution goes to the source of that income. When I ask people what is your number one concern, they almost always respond with the statement that we are paying the costs locally for income that the whole state benefits from. I am a believer in the philosophy that you always ensure the bills are paid prior to drawing or distributing profit.
Solberg: I believe that more oil tax should go to the impacted oil-producing counties. These counties in western North Dakota are seeing their infrastructure fall apart. The formula needs to be changed.
Skarphol: Yes, I am working on a proposal for a significant change in the distribution formula. It would result in the political subdivisions retaining a much larger portion of the revenue stream as well as the creation of a separate "Hub City" aspect to the distribution. I strongly believe that political subdivisions need to be allowed to retain more of the formula dollars to provide them with the ability to budget and bond for their needs with a great deal more certainty than the awarding of "impact dollars" allows.
Rust: Yes! It is no great surprise that the counties with the most oil and gas production have the greatest impact, yet, those counties receive the lowest percentages of return. For example, Williams and Mountrail counties got back 5.2 percent and 5.6 percent, respectively, in fiscal year 2012. It simply doesn't come close to taking care of the challenges to roads, infrastructure, EMS, fire, police, etc. The funding tiers, which splits out the money to the counties and the state, need to be changed so more dollars go back to the counties, cities and schools for the immediate and long-term impact. In addition, a real inequity exists for those smaller cities that happen to be in a county with a large city, such as Williston and Dickinson. The formula should fund those large cities separately so the other cities are treated equitably and fairly.
Andrist: We need to significantly increase the money we give back. If we have made any mistake, it has been in underestimating the dimension of the impact. The governor is on board, and we will increase that distribution to local communities.
3. To what extent does the state have responsibility to help oil-affected communities with housing, law enforcement, roads, child care and impact-related concerns?
Solberg: I believe it is the state's responsibility to increase their support to local governments to deal with issues such as housing, roads, law enforcement, schools child care, emergency services, etc.
Skarphol: If more of the dollars are delivered by the formula, the need for the state to be as active a participant should be diminished. The local governing bodies should and do know the needs more closely and would be expected to resolve many of these issues without state involvement.
Rust: Roads, infrastructure, EMS, fire, police, etc., can be handled through the Gross Oil and Gas Production Tax funding formula or the Energy Impact Office. The housing tax incentive program should be increased to assist with housing needs. With regards to child care, I'm of the opinion that should be left to families and private enterprise with the state not imposing so many regulations that it hampers the process. If we provide any funding, it should be for one-time start-up costs, not for on-going expenditures.
Andrist: The work must be done by local boards and communities. It is our job to respond to their specific needs with significantly more grant money.
Jacobson: The state does have a responsibility and there have been steps taken to help but much more is needed. I support increases in the Housing Incentive Fund. I would also support an effort to provide resources that would allow cities to expand the infrastructure required for development. On road issues, our cities, counties and townships need more impact money available for maintenance and improvements. Child care is a problem throughout the state. It is hard to expand our long-term work force without providing options for the families needed to fill that work force.
4. What should be the state's priorities for the budget surplus?
Skarphol: A surplus does not truly exist until all of the responsibilities have been met. There is still a tremendous need to repair infrastructure of all kinds. We have incredible needs for reconstructing and upgrading roads across the state. While the needs in oil country may be more immediate, the needs are just as critical to the rest of the state. The age and condition of many of the water and sewer systems throughout the state need attention. A great deal of it is 60-plus years old. Adequate drinking water for the entire state is still a costly issue for many areas.
Rust: Fund those things that are necessary for a great "quality of life." Having been involved in education nearly all of my life, that would be high on my list of priorities. Investing dollars in our infrastructure, roads, bridges, reliable water supplies for cities and rural areas, and parks wouldn't be far behind. Do it when dollars are more readily available, so those are in good condition when finances change. Save a portion of dollars we receive from a one-time resource to help fund government for future generations. I'd hate to think that my generation would be so careless and selfish as to spend it all, and possibly saddle our children and grandchildren with a debt, as is the case with our federal government.
Andrist: Guard against growing the size and scope of state government. Increased spending should be limited, for the most part, to grants for local needs. But we must also judiciously save parts of this one-time harvest, as well as to give every North Dakotan some more tax relief.
Jacobson: First and foremost, the state must ensure the expenses related to that surplus are paid. If that is done then I am in agreement that a portion should be set aside. The balance should be put to work for or returned to the citizens of North Dakota. We should not be a tax and hoard state as we currently are. Use the money to expand long-term opportunities for all North Dakotans.
Solberg: The state's priorities for the budget surplus should be to invest in our state; more for our seniors, schools, veterans, research for the agriculture sector in our university systems. Another priority is property-tax relief.
5. Are there other issues facing your district that you would want to address in the Legislature?
Andrist: We must adopt a commitment to helping oil-patch farm families. Mineral owners are doing well, but farmers who have no mineral ownership are left with the environmental headaches.
Jacobson: I would like to see a greater opportunity for ALL high school students to participate in more dual credit courses better preparing them for college, saving time and money in the process. I would also like to see better interest rates available for college loans through the Bank of North Dakota. Our students currently pay higher rates than what are commonly available for other types of loans.
Solberg: One of the biggest issues facing District 2, which consists of rural Williams County, all of Divide and Burke counties and western Mountrail County, including Stanley, is the repair to our infrastructure by appropriating more oil tax dollars to our local governments. Another issue is more recognition for our veterans.
Skarphol: If I am aware of a specific issue that we face in my district, it is my practice to seek solutions that address the issue from a statewide perspective. Parochial solutions seldom succeed. If we have a problem it is seldom unique to one district but is occurring elsewhere, and the broader solution will generally result in a more comprehensive and appropriate public policy decision.
Rust: Our EMS and fire departments are all volunteer. Those individuals are being stressed to the maximum. The time has come for some full-time employees in those areas. Our hospital's ER visits are nearly triple of a few years ago, and our inability to collect payment on those visits is staggering. In addition, due to increased demand, many hospitals and clinic facilities are in need of upgrade and expansion. Hospitals and clinics should have access to, at a minimum, low-interest loans to meet the expectations of those in need of services. The state would lose only the difference in the interest on those loans, and at today's rates, that's really quite insignificant.