Monday, December 7, 2015

NDACo Supports Updated Election Equipment in 2017

DeAnn Buckhouse, Cass Co., shows Sen. Jon Casper new e-poll books
County Auditors have concerns with aging election software and equipment. Ballot scanners purchased with federal funds from the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) are over a dozen years old. Several counties have experienced problems with the scanners, Cass County Auditor, Mike Montplaisir shared his concerns with the aging equipment.

"Some scanners will not pass our rigorous testing requirements and others fail during Election Day and have to be replaced with a spare scanner," said Montplaisir.

An issue of this nature is of great concern to auditors who want to ensure voters that every vote is counted accurately. Electronic poll-books are also out-dated. North Dakota is not alone. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), most states are also in the same dilemma; deciding when and how to fund new election equipment. NCSL held a meeting recently that included county auditors, NDACo, Secretary of State staff and legislators. The discussion focused on the technology involved in administering elections. The group shared insights and ideas for the future need with emphasis on costs and funding. NCSL staff led the conversation, which helped the group identify what a new voting system should include.

Tour of Cass Co. warehouse where election equipment is stored
Cass County has already identified the need for newer equipment by funding new e-poll books and election software in 2015. This was a $320,000 investment by the county. Cass County auditor Mike Montplaisir told the group, "our county commission views elections as a core government service and they are willing to fund what we need. Our big concern is that this equipment is dated and we need ballot scanners that are digital. The equipment is available that addresses these concerns."

The Secretary of State's office says they will include a funding request for new election equipment in their 2017 budget. The preliminary cost estimate is $20 million.

County Auditors will have a major role to play in educating their local legislators on what equipment is used in their county and how it is in dire need of replacement.

Friday, December 4, 2015

NDACo Emphasizes Social Service Funding will Provide Tax Relief

State Legislators have made many successful efforts to reduce property taxes in North Dakota over the last few sessions. Now, going forward, an interim committee is tasked with looking at an area that could lead to one of the most logical tax relief efforts. The Interim Political Subdivision Taxation Committee along with a working group are studying county social service funding in order to develop a funding formula for the transferring of the entire cost of county social services to the state. If the plan ultimately meets Legislative approval, property taxpayers would no longer be responsible for covering the county social service budgets- resulting in true property tax relief.

NDACo’s Assistant Director of Policy and Programs, Terry Traynor, testified before the committee. His presentation emphasized how property tax reform, as well as relief, can be accomplished through this initiative. The message that seems to resonate with legislators is that property tax is a “poor fit” for funding social services.

“Many other local services can more easily be related to the value of a person’s property; like fire protection, police, road and street maintenance, parks and recreation,” Traynor said. “Social services are more of a stretch. Yet, social services consumes a large portion of the total budget for many counties. In addition, counties have little authority over the spending on social services as a majority of the services are mandated by state and federal rules.”

The biggest argument for reform however is how the current system levies a very unequal burden among property owners. Traynor provided lawmakers with three examples of homes for sale of roughly equal value in Mercer, Cass and Ramsey counties to compare what the owners have paid in the past for social services. The owner of a $300,000 home in Ramsey County paid 4.5 times as much in property taxes to support Social Service taxes than someone with a similarly valued home in Mercer County.

“That’s why we think this is true reform,” said Traynor. 

The Legislature took an initial step in providing tax relief and reform through social services by taking over the cost of grant and program costs for foster care, adoption and other programs. That move totaled $8.5 million in county costs, or about 12% of the county social service spending. What remains is largely staff costs. With the exception of $3 million in local option services, most costs are driven directly by federal and state required services.

For at least 30 years, counties have been urging the Legislature to reduce the property tax burden of social services. Traynor provided insight to how this could be accomplished. Approximately $110-$120 million would be used to reimburse county costs of state programs including salaries, benefits and space on a caseload/workload basis. The reimbursements should also recognize the cost differences due to county size and rural nature. He highlighted the most important factors of: counties retaining their current administrative role, no counties should see a decrease in funding and maintaining provisions are included for “local-option” services.

“We need to recognize the funding counties are providing for local services like food banks and in-home health care, and ensure that these necessary local services do not erode. We can’t deprive people of services at the local level,” Traynor added.

Legislators shared many questions and concerns. Most of the questions focused on the efficient delivery of services. Traynor addressed their concerns by highlighting how counties have found and continue to look for efficiencies in delivering social services. Nearly every county shares some kind of social service resource. Traynor pointed out that as a funding formula is developed it should provide incentives for counties who do find efficiencies or share resources where appropriate.

Overall, the state and counties together spend $3.1 Billion in a biennium on human services. The state spends $3 Billion and counties spend $120 million. Traynor pointed out that the state has a tremendous investment in this area; the county share is a small, but critical, portion.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Interim Transportation Committee meets on UGPTI study and uniform truck permitting

NDDOT Director, Grant Levi
 Committee Scraps Study to Re-Align Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute
The Interim Transportation Committee voted Thursday to suspend further study of moving the Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute (UGPTI) from NDSU to the North Dakota Department of Transportation (NDDOT). The interim committee has held two meetings on this issue and received no testimony in support for a change in the administration authority. NDDOT and UGPTI provided testimony reiterating that there is no benefit to gain by changing this relationship. NDSU President Dean Bresciani said, "In no way is this in the best interest of our state. I am not aware of any benefit that would be achieved with moving UGPTI to NDDOT." He also pointed out that a substantial amount of outside funding would not be available if UGPTI was not tied to a university. "I believe it is important for us to have a third party perspective separate from us (NDDOT) to do these studies which tell us what needs to be done," said NDDOT Director Grant Levi. Legislators can resume discussions on the study if new information arises.

Uniform Truck Permit System Study
Terry Traynor, NDACo
Lawmakers continue their study on the over-weight truck permitting system in oil and gas producing counties. The committee is reviewing the ND association of oil and gas producing counties' uniform county truck permit program. NDACo was asked to testify on the efforts by counties outside the oil region regarding over-weight truck permitting. More counties are making permits available through their websites and more county sheriff's are purchasing their own scales and dedicating manpower to enforcement. In addition, NDACo requested the committee remove the sunset related to civil penalties for those driving over-weight vehicles without the proper permitting. 2013 legislation clarified that the civil penalties went to the road fund were the enforcement action took place. Prior to the law change, all settlements benefited the state. The legislative change was drafted to "sunset" at the end of this current biennium. NDACo expects to see a bill draft to remove the sunset clause at the next Interim Transportation Committee meeting.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Legislative Committee Gets First Look at Social Service Study

Several times during the Political Subdivision Taxation Committee meeting the word “painful” was used in referring to understanding the complexity of the county social service funding system. For several legislators serving on this committee, it was the first time social service funding had been explained to them. It is the committee’s task to study the development of a plan to transfer the costs of operating social services from county property tax levies to general fund dollars. The committee make-up will add value in the planning process. Committee members are a mix of lawmakers who primarily have experience serving on taxation, human services, and political subdivisions committees.  
This was the first meeting of the Political Subdivision Taxation Committee. They were provided a background on the numerous programs and variety of services provided through county social services. In addition, they reviewed the funding history of social services dating back to 1981 when the social service levy was created. 
Traynor testifies before Interim Political Subdivision Taxation Committee

NDACo’s Terry Traynor stressed the need to preserve access to services at the local level. He gave several real-life examples legislators could relate to in illustrating the importance. “When an officer arrests a parent, a child welfare worker is needed there now. We need to make sure that service is in the county.”
Legislators appropriated $23 million to shift the grant costs for county social services to the state. In the same bill, they directed this study. If the Legislature decides to support the transition, it could mean $125 million in property tax relief for North Dakota taxpayers.
A working group has been established to assist the legislative committee in information gathering. A majority of the members on the working group have direct experience with social services. They will evaluate the funding needs and develop a formula to fund social services in the future. The group is currently collecting caseload and financial information from counties. Auditors and Social Service Directors received an email earlier this week from NDACo requesting information, as well as providing a tool to assist in the 2016 budget limitation for social services as set forth by the Legislature. The working group is made up of county social service directors, commissioners, Traynor from NDACo and department representatives from Human Services, Tax and the Office of Management and Budget. The working group meets again September 2nd.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Government Finance Committee Receives Updates on Oil & Roads

The future of oil
While oil activity has slowed down, it is far from being a bust. That was the message Director of Mineral Resources Lynn Helms delivered to lawmakers Monday at the capitol. Helms spoke to the Government Finance Committee on the current activity along with projections. To summarize, he says the current wells can easily maintain our current production; but growth will not be seen at the rate it has been in the past few years. Oil production and development will be a major topic as legislators work through the interim in preparation for the next session as oil revenues dump into several state funds.
“There are drastic differences when comparing today’s activity to that of nine months ago,” says Helms. “However, the boom is far from over. Companies are still obtaining permits at a level seen in 2011 and 2012. And if you remember, there was strong activity at that time. Companies may be putting drilling activity on the back burner, but they want the permits in their hand so they can flip a switch when prices rebound.”
Vern Whitten Photography
Helms predicts in three to five years there will be more than double the wells that currently exist. There are 12,659 wells pumping oil in North Dakota. What he expects to see next are more wells being drilled on existent pads. He told legislators they can expect to see six to 32 wells per spacing unit. The core area of the Bakken around Watford City and New Town is where you will see the highest concentration of wells per spacing unit.
Driving through oil country you are sure to see fewer rigs. Currently only 74 rigs are drilling, primarily in McKenzie, Mountrail, Williams and Dunn counties where it remains profitable even when prices are low. Dunn County has the lowest breakeven price per barrel at $24.  Helms says he expects to see 1200 less wells in 2015 than he projected in October 2014. While the rig count has dropped significantly, Helms says companies have found efficiencies. In 2015 a rig can drill 20-24 wells in one year compared to in 2009 when a rig would drill only 10 wells a year. So 74 rigs can drill 2,000 wells. In the beginning of the boom, 200 rigs would have been strained to drill that many holes.
The loss in rigs does mean a loss in workers. Helms told legislators almost 18,000 jobs were lost as 100 rigs packed up. Lawmakers indicated they would like to hear more from Job Service on unemployment numbers at a future meeting.
Road Construction Update
A slow-down in oil drilling activity has not carried over to less traffic. Director of North Dakota Department of Transportation, Grant Levi, showed committee members traffic counts from the first part of 2015. Where the traffic has been higher January through May in 2015 compared to 2014 and far exceeds 2010 numbers.
Levi says, “From 2010 to 2014 traffic increased 26% on all state highways. There is more traffic than the system was designed for. One stretch of US 2 near Stanley was designed for 20 years of traffic, but it reached its life expectancy in six years.”
 His facts reiterated the great investment need in transportation. $807 million of work on state highways, city and county roads will be done in 2015 alone. “A program of this size is only possible because of the Legislative Body passing Senate Bill 2103, otherwise known as the “Surge” bill.”
A map of 2015 construction projects shows work being done across the State. You can see the locations by visiting
In total, legislators appropriated $2.3 Billion for transportation funding statewide for 2015-2017.  

Thursday, June 18, 2015

County Social Services Financing Working Group Meets

First ever meeting of the County Social Services Working Group. This group will work on developing a proposed transition plan for transferring the costs of operating social services programs from county property tax levies to state general fund appropriations. Representing counties are: Kim Jacobson, Traill Co Social Services Director; Steve Reiser, McLean Co Social Service Director; Randy Suckut, Wells Co Commissioner; Mike Montplaisir, Cass Co Auditor and Terry Traynor, NDACo. The group will report and assist an interim legislative committee assigned to study this issue. Read the full story here:

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

ND Lawmakers Return to Finish Business

Legislators returned to the Capitol to wrap up their work on Senate Bill 2022, the state's Retirement and Investment Office and Public Employees Retirement System budget. Legislators left in May without passing the budget bill due to the House and Senate being unable to reach a compromise. Lawmakers met prior to this week to work on a compromise to present to both the House and Senate chambers. Still, several lawmakers stood up on the floor to criticize the legislative process used to get to this point.

Lawmakers were also given an update on oil tax revenues for the 2015-2017 biennium since oil prices were above the threshold to avoid hitting an oil tax trigger. The Office of Management and Budget says an increase of $527 million in oil taxes can be anticipated due to the trigger not hitting. That figure is based on a production of 1.1 million barrels and the average price of oil in May. The additional revenues will be spread amongst several state funds. The greatest fund to benefit from the additional dollars is the strategic investment and improvements fund which is used to fund infrastructure projects. 

ND House Passes "Waters of the U.S." Resolution

North Dakota House members used the opportunity during their special session to pass a resolution. The resolution urges Congress to invalidate the rules adopted by the Environmental Protection Agency and the United States Army Corps of Engineers defining the "waters of the United States" under the Clean Water Act. The resolution says the state of North Dakota contains many water resources, the use of which for agriculture, municipal water supply, and economic health is needed and the rules will needlessly complicate and may prohibit the safe and intelligent development and management of the state's water resources.
Representative Craig Headland brought the resolution forward. He told House members, "our property owners should know we have their backs on this. We need to help our delegation. All three of them have issued statements against this rule. We need to be on the record, we need to take this opportunity to show we can not allow this lawlessness stand. This is federal overreach. We don't know the impacts, but it could be devastating to agriculture and industry in North Dakota." The resolution passed the House with a voice vote.
NDACo is also on record opposing the "Waters of the U.S." rule and has sent communication to North Dakota's delegation urging them to oppose the proposal. 

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

County Studies Prioritized

The Legislative Management Committee struggled to reduce the 111 studies approved by the 64th Legislative Assembly down to a manageable number for the interim.  They started with 16 that were passed as "required" studies, and ended up adding 28 additional studies for a total of 44.

Of these 44 chosen studies, the NDACo staff has identified 30 that have some relationship to county government.  We have grouped those 30 below in general topic areas.  Keep in mind that now the Legislative Management will divide the studies and the legislators up into 15-18 topic committees, so these will likely get sliced and diced in a somewhat different configuration. 

We will post here the committees, studies assigned, and chairman; once the Legislative Management Committee has completed this work.

Mandatory & Optional Interim Studies / 2015-17 Interim
30 County-Related Out of 44 Total Prioritized Studies (111 Total Advanced)
Oil Tax & Allocation Studies
    SB 2015 § 42 Oil and gas tax incentives and oil and gas recovery techniques (Required)
    SB 2318 Oil extraction tax exemptions for tertiary recovery (Required)
    HB 1176  § 6 Oil and gas tax revenue allocations
Highway Issue Studies
    HB 1377 Truck permitting in oil & gas counties (Required)
    HB 1012 § 10 Impacts  of harmonizing truck size and weight regulations (Required)
    SB 2015 § 41 Special transportation funding distributions to political subdivisions
    HB 1020  Feasibility of placing the upper great plains transportation institute under the NDDOT
    SB 2167 The one-call excavation notice system
Justice & Public Safety Studies
    HB 1015  § 4 Petrial services, sentencing alternatives, treatment options, and related issues (Required)
    HB 1165 PEW Research study of public safety, corrections (Required)
    HCR 3006  Use of state resources for youth adjudicated by tribal courts 
    HCR 3012  Child sex offender registration 
    HB 1004 Acquiring UND forensic pathology center
    HCR 3004  Best practices for forensic death investigation 
    HB 1018  § 25 Feasibility of establishing a civilian ground center for processing first responder data
    SCR 4018 Use of seclusion and restraint in schools
Health & Human Services Studies
    SB 2206 § 12 Develop a plan to transfer of 100% of county social service costs to state (Required)
    HB 1378  Essential health delivery & Affordable Care Act (Required)
    SB 2048 § 7 Behavioral health needs
    HB 1279 Family caregiver supports and services
    HCR 3049  Employment and public assistance 
    HCR 3003 State employee health insurance premiums
Voting & Election Studies
    HB 1302  Voter registration  
    HB 1389  Verification of non-citizens for voting purposes 
Water Studies  
    SB 2020 § 22 Sustainable water supply to central & eastern North Dakota (Required)
    HCR 3020  Impact on owners from land inundated by rising Devils Lake waters 
    HB 1095  Use of quick-take by water boards
Tax Incentive & Exemption Studies
    SB 2057 Economic development incentives (Required)
    SB 2276 Incentives to getting natural gas service to underserved communities
    HB 1401  Sales tax exemption for materials bought by contractor for tax exempt entity