Veto may leave townships low on funding
BISMARCK, N.D. — The North Dakota Legislature's lawsuit against Gov. Doug Burgum over his vetoes does not cover Burgum's veto of extra funding for township roads in non-oil producing counties. Nor does it seem likely that lawmakers will meet in special session to overturn the veto.
That leaves 1,610 townships with $10,000 less in funding than they've had in recent years.
Amid oil income in the 2013 and 2015 legislative sessions, lawmakers gave $10,000 to each of the non-oil producing townships to help them with road maintenance.
Sen. Terry Wanzek, R-Jamestown, explains the money was allocated to the non-oil producing townships not to take away from the townships in the oil-producing counties but to recognize the road needs of the farther east counties.
The 2017 Legislature again included the appropriation, but Burgum vetoed the section of the bill, saying in his veto message that "across-the-board appropriation is both arbitrary and an inefficient use" of the state's "scarce financial resources."
The money was to have been transferred to the townships in August. Now they'll have to do without.
"A significant number of them have come to depend on it," Larry Syverson executive director and director of governmental relations for the North Dakota Township Officers Association, says of the $10,000 allocation.
Many townships reduced their levies so as to reduce their dependence on property taxes for road maintenance.
"Now it won't come," Syverson says. "A fair number of the townships had spent a lot of money on snow removal in December. Some of them had expanded their entire treasury on the big snow that we had in early winter, thinking there would be some emergency funding. It's going to be a pretty lean year for some townships."
Rural roads serve an important function for agriculture. Wanzek recollects listening to Brazilian farmers at a Top Producer convention years ago talk about how they could grow soybeans for far less money per bushel than farmers in the U.S. The difference for them was that it would take just as much money to grow the crop as to get it to market, Wanzek explains.
"I always like to say, the first mile a bushel of wheat or soybeans or the first mile a load of cattle makes to market is on township roads," he says.
"Here in eastern North Dakota, we have sugar beet harvest beginning," Syverson says. "It's raining. It's wet. They're going to be dragging mud up on the roads and some of those townships are going to have a hard time repairing the damage."
Farmers rely on adequate infrastructure to compete in the global market, Wanzek says, adding that the performance of agriculture has major implications for all of North Dakota, given that it remains a big part of the state's economy.
"Everybody to some degree has a connection to agriculture," Wanzek says. "We all eat. We all depend on the resources and general economic benefits."
While the Legislature has moved to sue Burgum over some vetoes from the 2017 session, Syverson explains the township roads veto was not of the same nature as some of the governor's other vetoes. In those cases, Burgum had vetoed small portions of bills, which legislators argue changed their intent. In the case of the township funding, Burgum vetoed the entire bill section, which is allowed.
Wanzek says it doesn't sound like the lawmakers would have the votes to overturn the veto in regard to township road funding, though there is some support for looking into solutions during the 2019 session. Syverson has heard legislators intend to hold onto the days they have available for a special session in case something drastic happens to the state's economic outlook or other issues arise with which they will need to deal.
In the meantime, Syverson says townships will need to make due with what they have, borrow money or move to raise property taxes. Though raising taxes never is a popular move, Syverson says people in rural areas generally understand the need.