Senators question $50 million for tourism

Increasing the commercial budgetd 415%

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BISMARCK — A bill moving through the North Dakota state legislature aims to provide $50 million for tourism initiatives, prompting some senators to hesitate before the bill passed Thursday.

House Bill 1018 seeks to increase the Commerce Department’s budget by 415 percent, from about $85 million to $438 million with mostly federal funds. The House originally increased the budget by 191 percent to $248 million, but the Senate added money to the House proposal. The bill includes $351 million in one-time funding for certain projects, which the House had at $157 million.

One of the changes the Senate made was increasing funding for the House Tourism Destination and Development Initiative by $25 million over Gov. Doug Burgum’s original recommendation of $50 million. The Senate also added $210 million for weather and energy programs. North Dakota is eligible for at least $100 million for these programs, but DOC expects that not all states will use all of their funding in this area, so North Dakota could receive up to that $210 million.

“What we’re being told, these dollars, we’re not saving the federal government money by sending them back,” said Sen. Terry Wanzek, R-Dis. 29, Jamestown. “Whatever we send back, another country will use it. So we make sure that our state can benefit from these programs.

Sen. Donald Scheible, R-Dis. Mott, 31, said he was one of the few voices against the Senate amendments in the Appropriations Committee, and one reason was because of the $50 million in tourism initiatives.

“Some of this is stuff of special interest. Some of them are pet projects. Some of them are obviously projects that the governor wants,” Scheible said. “These kinds of things should have come in separate bills or separate ideas. In my opinion, it’s more money looking for a good project than a good project looking for money.”

“I want to remind this body that tourism is the third largest industry that we have,” said Sen. Karen Krebsbach, R-Dis. 40, Minot. “North Dakota, if you check the neighboring states, is the state with the lowest dollars for tourism funding. We are at a time and point in our history here in our state that we need to take every advantage possible to get more people into this state. Maybe some of these people will like us so well that they will decide to move here.

Sen. Kyle Davison, R-Dis. 41, Fargo, said he agrees with many of the goals in the bill.

“But there’s a lot of a leap of faith here asking us to take these dollars when there aren’t a lot of defined outcomes and there aren’t a lot of action steps or an accountability process built into some of them,” Davison said.

Sen. Janne Myrdal, R-Dis. 19, Edinburg, said the state has provided four million dollars to eight regional workforce councils and in the past two years they have brought $52 million worth of projects to North Dakota.

“It’s not like our subcommittee came up with, hey, $50 million sounds like a good number,” Wanzek said. “The governor had it in his budget recommendations. I feel that the program, reading the destination and the development and how the projects will be implemented, I think there will be due diligence in determining which projects will get the money or not.”

Wanzek said the bill with the Senate amendments, compared to the House version, reduces the general fund by $9.8 million and cuts the Strategic Investments and Improvements Fund by $95.5 million.

The Senate amendment to the bill passed 23 to 22. The bill amended the bill passed 32 to 13.

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