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Charley Johnson, president of the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau, makes the case for Legacy Fund support of a destination development grant fund before the North Dakota Legislature's Legacy Fund Earnings Committee, which met Tuesday, Nov. 2, at the Harry D. McGovern Alumni Center at North Dakota State University. Patrick Springer / The Forum

As North Dakota Legacy Fund tops $6 billion, ideas pour in for spending the wealth

FARGO — The North Dakota Legacy Fund’s $6.36 billion balance has inspired a fountain of ideas from advocates pleading for investments in school buildings, universal school lunch, health care and destination tourism sites to name but a few.

The ideas were presented Tuesday, Nov. 12, before a packed meeting of the North Dakota Legislature’s Legacy Fund Earnings Committee, which gathered here to take testimony on how the fund should be used.

Landis Larson, president of the North Dakota AFL-CIO federation of labor unions, urged legislators to use the fund to rebuild roads and bridges across the state and increase investments in classrooms, counseling, affordable housing, child care and health care.

“All the wealth created in North Dakota is the product of our labor, and we deserve a plan that improves the lives of working families instead of another tax cut for wealthy elites and corporations,” he said.

Jason Boynton, an associate professor of mathematics at North Dakota State University, said the Legacy Fund should be used to provide universal school lunch. He estimated it would cost $58 million per school year to provide a lunch for each of the state’s 111,000 public school students.

Relief is needed for working families who earn too much for reduced school lunches but still struggle to pay their bills. Some school districts are sending school lunch debts to collection agencies.

“Not only do districts usually collect only a negligible fraction of the total debt, families become more likely to encounter further economic hardship, such as less access to good credit and dignified housing,” Boynton said.

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Steve Burian, co-chairman of the Valley Prosperity Partnership, which is working to strengthen and diversify the economy of the Red River Valley region and state, said the Legacy Fund should be used to make investments in research at North Dakota State University and the University of North Dakota.

“Research conducted at UND and NDSU helps to sustain and boost our statewide competitive advantage in agriculture and energy,” he said. “Their research also leads to innovations in emerging technology sectors that translate into new economic opportunities, a more skilled workforce and higher-paying jobs for North Dakotans.”

The North Dakota Travel Alliance Partnership, a coalition that includes the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau, is seeking a “fraction” of Legacy Fund earnings for a “Destination Development Fund” for new or enhanced attractions to lure visitors to the state.

Charley Johnson, president of the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the alliance is asking for up to $15 million in the next biennium to pay for a matching grant program.

“Make no mistake about it, tourism development is economic development on its own,” but also helps in workforce recruitment by enhancing the quality of life for the state’s residents, he said.

A representative of Dickinson Public Schools pleaded for more state support to help school districts across the state pay for building projects to ease the burden on local property taxpayers.

The problem is especially acute in western North Dakota, where the cost of building schools is 30% to 35% higher than in the eastern side of the state, Superintendent Shon Hocker said in a statement presented by Sarah Trustem, the district’s community relations coordinator.

Dickinson High School, built for 1,000 to 1,100 students, already houses more than 1,000 students.

“This overcrowded situation will continue to get worse as each incoming class entering DHS increases by 60 students each year,” Hocker’s statement said. “By the time our current kindergarten class begins high school, DHS will be 150% over capacity.”

Tony Grindberg, a Fargo city commissioner, is proposing a Legacy Zone plan to provide tax exemptions and credits to spur investment preserve houses built after World War II to sustain core neighborhoods.

“By creating financial incentives and using a portion of Legacy earnings, we could develop and preserve our state’s community core neighborhoods by simply enhancing an already proven Renaissance Zone investment model,” he said.

Others who showed up to testify included pleas for more state support to give rural communities and rural water systems affordable access to the planned $1 billion Red River Valley Water Supply Project, to carry Missouri River water to central and eastern North Dakota.

Other suggestions included a $20 million fund community to help small towns demolish abandoned buildings and replace them with community gardens or to build recreation trails and other amenities and to establish a DakotaCare health insurance program for all residents who don’t quality for Medicare.

Voters approved the Legacy Fund in 2010, a pool of money financed by a share of the state’s oil and gas revenues. The fund’s principal can be tapped only by a vote of two-thirds of both legislative chambers.

Projections by the North Dakota Legislative Council estimate the Legacy Fund will grow to $27.99 billion by 2041 if all earnings are transferred to the state general fund, $36.72 billion if the earnings are split evenly between the general fund and Legacy Fund, and $48.33 billion if all earnings are returned to the Legacy Fund.

The committee will resume on Wednesday, Nov. 13, with further testimony about Legacy Fund spending.