North Dakota lawmakers in each legislative chamber approved a Public Service Commission budget Monday, which included a compromise on a rail safety pilot program.
The Senate unanimously passed Senate Bill 2008 by a 47-0 vote Monday morning and the House by an 85-4 vote in the evening.
The rail safety program had been a major source of debate within the PSC budget. The original bill had provided for two inspectors and a rail safety manager, which were removed by the House earlier this month.
Under the compromise, the program would provide $523,345 from the rail safety fund for the pilot program. A total of $253,345 would be for the salary of one inspector and $200,000 for a temporary employee. The remaining $70,000 was for operating costs.
Language in SB2008 states that the pilot program is intended to last through the 2017-19 biennium.
“We got a pretty good deal at the end of the day. It isn’t all that we wanted, but it’s a good start,” Sen. Ronald Sorvaag, R-Fargo, said.
Sen. Tyler Axness, D-Fargo, said the state should have stuck with the original number of positions to supplement federal inspectors from the Federal Railroad Administration.
“To me, there should be no compromise on public safety. I think we can do better,” Axness said.
Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, said the end of the session is the time for concessions and compromise.
“They are boots on the ground, and I think that’s extremely important,” Holmberg said.
Bill carrier Rep. Roscoe Streyle, R-Minot, said industry and the state has stepped up to address rail safety.
SB2008 allows railroads to provide training for fire departments that have jurisdiction along railroad routes. The training would be made available by June 2016 with refresher courses made available every three years after that.
House Democrats echoed their Senate counterparts in saying the original rail program should have been in the final bill.
“I think this is a start. I don’t think it’s enough,” Rep. Ron Guggisberg, D-Fargo, said.
Guggisberg said federal inspectors have found numerous rail defects across the state in recent years, which he said was evidence of the need for additional oversight.
Rep. Kris Wallman, D-Fargo, said, if lawmakers hadn’t cut the oil extraction tax last week, there might be more money for a more robust program.
Streyle took exception with what he called attacks on the oil industry.
“Quite frankly, I’m sick and tired of the attacks on an industry where there’s 65,000 direct jobs,” Streyle said.
He said the state has benefited to the tune of billions in revenues that can be used to fund critical statewide needs.
The 2015-17 PSC budget, as passed, increases total staff by two to 46 and a budget of $22.2 million.