Gazette opinion: Lawmakers can still help oil-impacted region

2013-05-20T00:00:00Z 2013-06-11T11:11:04Z Gazette opinion: Lawmakers can still help oil-impacted region The Billings Gazette
May 20, 2013 12:00 am

With the Bakken drawing people to Eastern Montana, demand is far outstripping small towns’ capacity for sewer, water, streets, law enforcement and other public services.

House Bill 218 was passed by the 2011 Legislature to help local governments impacted by oil-and-gas development improve public infrastructure and services that are being overwhelmed by throngs of new residents and businesses. Sponsored by Rep. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, HB218 passed the Senate 48-2 and the House 93-6.

Those lawmakers who supported HB218 in April must vote for it again by June 10 so it can become law. Gov. Steve Bullock vetoed this popular legislation, along with numerous other spending bills in his effort to maintain a $300 million balance in the state’s checking account at the end of the next biennium in summer 2015.

But if two-thirds of each legislative chamber votes to override the veto, the new grant program for oil-impacted communities will start this summer.

Ankney, who chaired the House Appropriations Committee, told The Gazette last week that the state has sufficient funds for the Eastern Montana grant program, adding: “Am I going to starve my kids to put more money in the bank?”

Here’s what HB218 would do if it became law:

First, on June 30, it would transfer $15 million from the state general fund to a new special grant fund that will be administered by the Commerce Department, which already runs other grant programs.

City, county, school or tribal governments could then apply for grants to help cover the cost of infrastructure expansion or improvements required “as a consequence of oil and gas development.” Up to 10 percent of the grant money could go to law enforcement, fire or emergency services.

Then the grant fund would get a minimum of $10 million per year from the state’s share of federal mineral royalties from oil, gas and coal. Altogether, $35 million would be available this biennium.

Through fiscal 2020, a minimum of $10 million per year in federal mineral royalties would be placed in the grant fund.

All that money won’t come close to covering all the needs in Eastern Montana, but it would be a good start. Sidney leaders have identified $56 million in infrastructure needs – and that’s just one town.

“There’s families living in farmers’ fields in campers – with kids,” Ankney said. “We need to be able to build some affordable housing and we need water and sewer services to do that.

“Glendive needs it. They’re just pushing out by leaps and bounds and they don’t have money to expand infrastructure for sewer and water. Bainville is seeing a huge influx of people. Miles City is the same way, they have no way to expand.”

Fiscal responsibility is important, but so is providing basic infrastructure for orderly growth. The Bakken boom is busting Eastern Montana towns. If they don’t get help soon, many more Montanans will be consigned to years of substandard housing, inadequate roads and overworked police. The funds that HB218 would divert to Eastern Montana grants are largely generated by oil-and-gas development in that region.

Lawmakers have one last chance this year to help address serious oil impacts. We call on both Democrats and Republicans to vote again for HB218, for the sake of your Eastern Montana neighbors and Montana’s reputation as the last, best place.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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