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Budget Section okays CARES Act spending of $406 million

The Legislature’s Budget Section has okayed the first round of state spending from the CARES Act.

The state has received $1.25 billion dollars from the money set aside because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The first round amounts to about $406 million.

Some of the money will be spent on reclaiming roughly 419 oil wells that were shut in and orphaned since January first. And the Department of Mineral Resources says this would keep roughly 1000 oil field workers employed.

Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman (D-New Rockford) questioned whether the federal government would allow the state to spend COVID money for this.

"It may be a stretch too far, given the request is for workers," Heckaman said.

Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms replied these 419 wells were operating until February, when oil prices started to fall.

"They were potentially viable at January crude oil prices," Helms told the Budget Section. "They absolutely will not be able to pay their costs -- even their plugging and reclamation cost -- at less than $50 a barrel. For the foreseeable future, there is no money, other than CARES Act money."

Sen. Dave Oelke (R-Devils Lake) questioned the Department of Transportation’s plans to use some of its $17.8 million allocation to set up kiosks in rural areas, to facilitate driver’s license renewals and vehicle registrations.

"It just seems like kind of a sneaky way to use somebody else's money to pay something that should be a part of DOT's budget," Oelke said.

State DOT Director Bill Panos said the kiosks will save people from having to travel to take care of those functions, and that helps prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

"By giving rural areas, tribal nations and areas across the state the opportunity to do both driver's license and vehicle services remotely, they don't have to come in and interact with our employees and other folks," Panos said.

One member of the Budget Section voted “no” on approving the spending plans.  Sen. Tim Mathern (D-Fargo) said spending should be a decision of the full Legislature, and should have been done in a special session.


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