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Competitors show beef cattle at the North Dakota State Fair. (Photo provided by State Fair)

N.D. State Fair prize premiums part of proposed budget cuts by state agencies

BISMARCK — Prized pigs and ribbon-worthy crafts could earn youngsters a bit less at the North Dakota State Fair next year.

State agencies are proposing cuts to staff, equipment, travel and other areas—including State Fair prize premiums—to comply with 10 percent cuts ordered by Gov. Jack Dalrymple as they begin to submit their general fund budget requests for next biennium.

With nowhere else to cut, fair Manager Renae Korslien said the State Fair Association had no choice but to slash premiums by more than $50,000.

"Which is sad, because most that money goes to the 4-H and FFA kids," she said, noting more than 49,000 projects were entered at last year's fair in Minot. "That is the showcase of what the kids have worked on all year long."

Friday was the deadline for agencies to submit their 2017-19 budget requests, though only 13 of the 70 executive branch agencies did so. The other 57 were granted extensions ranging from a week to Oct. 3 for the largest state agency, the Department of Human Services.

The requests don't become public until the Office of Management and Budget validates them, but agency heads interviewed Monday reported using various approaches to meet the 90-percent budget goal, with staff reductions being a common theme.

In the state auditor's office, where 89 percent of the budget is tied up in salaries, State Auditor Robert R. Peterson said he proposed eliminating four of the six auditor positions that lawmakers shifted to his office from the North Dakota University System last year.

Peterson said the cuts mean two auditors will lose their jobs and audits of the North Dakota University System will take longer, but the office has other mandates that must be met.

"This was the least painful choice," he said.

Two of the four positions are currently unfilled, having been held vacant to meet the across-the-board cuts of 4.05 percent ordered by Dalrymple in February after a revised revenue forecast projected a $1.07 billion shortfall for the current biennium.

An updated forecast released last week projected an additional $310 million shortfall by next July, prompting Dalrymple to call a special session of the Legislature on Aug. 2 to balance the budget.

But that didn't affect the 2017-19 guidelines, which require agencies to submit general fund budgets at 90 percent of their original appropriation for ongoing expenditures for 2015-17, Fiscal Management Director Sheila Peterson said.

At the Department of Labor and Human Rights, Commissioner Troy Seibel said the agency proposed trimming operating expenses ranging from travel and training to printing and postage and eliminating one of its 15 full-time equivalency positions, a vacant administrative assistant post.

"We really want to minimize the impact on the public, so we just needed to do everything we could to hang on to our investigators," he said. "We don't have enough of them as it is."

The 2015 Legislature gave the department two additional investigators, who have helped shorten the backlog in investigating employment discrimination cases from about a year to 9½ months, Seibel said.

The state's economic downturn also has reduced demand for services, he said, noting the fiscal year that ended June 30 was the first since 2011 in which the department closed more cases than were filed.

Gunner laCour, executive director of the North Dakota Racing Commission, which regulates horse racing in the state, said the two-person agency proposed funding cuts for temporary employees and equipment updates, "lopping of a few things here and there that we would have liked but we can live without."

"For a small budget, the 10 percent is just as bad as for a big budget," he said.

The next forecast is due out in November, and if it shows revenues improving, OMB could include optional budget requests in the governor's executive budget proposal before he presents it to the Legislature in December, Sheila Peterson said.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.