Lt. Governor Drew Wrigley, distinguished legislators, elected officials, First Lady Betsy and fellow citizens of North Dakota -- welcome and thank you for being here today.
It is an honor and a privilege for me to address this special convening of the 62nd Legislative Assembly.
I wish you all well in your efforts to put together a successful special session. I was around here in 1991 and again in 2001 for the redistricting challenge. I remember being hunched over a computer screen, and talking about whether a district line could be tweaked one way or the other. Over the years you have handled this challenge well, and I have confidence you will again.
On January 4th, when I last addressed a joint session of our Legislature, I told everyone in this House chamber that the state of our state is strong and growing stronger.
I am pleased to tell you that those words -- strong and growing stronger - are even more appropriate today than ever before.
We continue to see significant growth in all of our industries including technology, tourism, agriculture, and in manufacturing, where most of the country has reported significant declines. Our progress can be seen in all of our major cities, in our small towns, and on our farms. No single industry tells the whole story of the great progress we are making.
Last week, Bloomberg News released its Economic Evaluation of the States and the national study credited North Dakota for having the best economy in the nation. As a matter of fact, the study says that North Dakota is the only state, by their measures, that is better off today than it was two years ago.
Our personal income, here in North Dakota, is growing at a rate that is more than double the national average.
We have about 17,000 job openings in many business sectors all across the state. And at 2.7 percent, we have the lowest unemployment rate in the nation.
Consumer spending is another indicator of economic strength and our sales tax collections show that - here in North Dakota - we continue to see strong consumer confidence, which is the result of our healthy labor market and our growing personal income.
Just three months into the current biennium, sales tax collections have exceeded the April legislative forecast by $59 million, and all general fund revenues are about $92 million higher than projected.
Because of our careful fiscal management and our continued economic growth, I am prepared to make three predictions about our future:
First: Our reserves at the end of this biennium will meet or exceed our forecast of last April.
Second: In 2013, we will have the resources needed to continue making investments in statewide infrastructure improvements and in other priorities, even while holding the line on on-going program expenditures.
Third: We will be able to continue building on our strong financial position, which will allow us to consider additional tax relief in the future.
We are making tremendous progress in our state, and our policies to create job opportunities are working. With our strong economic growth come significant challenges. But these challenges will not hold us back.
When spring flood waters rose to historic heights and wreaked havoc in Minot and other areas of the state, we banded together to help one another and to begin the process of rebuilding homes and lives.
I am confident that all of you will embrace that same spirit of unity and shared purpose during this special session to address our state's critical needs for flood disaster recovery.
The most significant task before you in this special session will be to develop a disaster recovery package for all of the people in our larger cities, small towns, counties and townships where flooding has created incredible hardships. This much-needed assistance cannot be postponed.
As part of this recovery plan, I urge you to make funds available to flood victims who months ago were forced from their homes, and who now want to rebuild. The Bank of North Dakota can be a very useful tool in assisting local lenders who should play a major role in helping their communities recover as quickly as possible.
I also recommend that you create an infrastructure grant fund to assist the many political subdivisions left struggling to cover the unforeseen costs of significant flood damage -- costs that are not reimbursable through FEMA or other assistance programs. These impacts are real and numerous, but the costs are still not fully known. I urge you to approve a mechanism to evaluate requests for aid to political subdivisions and distribute grant funds based on need.
We also know that in Minot and in some of our other cities, we need substantial floodway projects designed and built to protect area residents from further flooding. Property owners who have lost much to flooding deserve peace of mind, knowing that their efforts to rebuild will not be lost to future floods.
These floodway projects fall under the responsibility of the State Water Commission and under the circumstances, these projects deserve a resolution of support from the Legislature. In addition to these floodway projects, we also need water outlets, levees, and many other important water projects. I urge you to show your commitment to these greatly needed projects by increasing the spending authority of the State Water Commission for all revenues received in this biennium. These funds will be coming into the Resources Trust Fund and should be made available now.
I also recommend that the legislative assembly address the financial hardships that recurring flooding has created for some of our townships. After several consecutive years of having to repair flooded roads, some townships are carrying a debt load that would take decades to retire. Obviously, this situation is not sustainable, and we must make sure that townships, which have become financially strapped because of chronic overland flooding, can continue to rebuild their vital roadways.
The last piece of this much-needed disaster recovery package should assist not only flood-impacted communities, but also communities impacted by the oil industry's rapid development. We need more low-income housing in North Dakota, and it cannot wait.
Federal tax credits are being well utilized, but they are not enough. I urge you to provide a substantial increase to the funding you provided last winter for the incentive state tax credit in order to enhance and accelerate the development of new, low-income housing in communities impacted by disaster and rapid oil development. I have also asked the Bank of North Dakota to enhance their existing loan programs for affordable housing.
This special session also gives us an opportunity to increase the funds available to the Oil Impact Fund. The need for grants in oil-impacted communities has proven to be even greater than anticipated in April, and I urge you to provide additional funding without delay.
One impact that requires special attention is public safety on our western roads. I have instructed the Highway Patrol to send 9 more troopers to the west as soon as they complete their training. I also support the authorization of 4 additional troopers as part of your work this week.
Regarding another matter coming before the assembly, I urge you to pass Senator Lonnie Laffen's bill, which would return the decision-making authority regarding the logo and nickname to the State Board of Higher Education. I believe it was worth the effort to do everything we could to keep the university's proud nickname. But now, with the University of North Dakota facing harm to its student athletes and all students, it is time to move forward.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is our good fortune that the legislative assembly is convening at this time. It gives us the opportunity to address several pressing needs that should not be postponed. Because of our strong financial condition, we have the ability to address these issues. Best wishes with your important work of the next few days.
Thank you and God bless North Dakota.