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Published August 20, 2013, 12:14 PM

West Virginia lawmakers to travel to North Dakota to study Legacy Fund

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — West Virginia Senate President Jeff Kessler says his state has a second shot at saving tax revenue from energy development and it's looking to oil rich-North Dakota for advice.

By: JAMES MacPHERSON,Associated Press, Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — West Virginia Senate President Jeff Kessler says his state has a second shot at saving tax revenue from energy development and it's looking to oil rich-North Dakota for advice.

Kessler, a Democrat, is leading the 17-member bipartisan delegation of state lawmakers who are coming to the state Capitol in Bismarck Thursday to learn more about North Dakota's savings account for oil and gas taxes.

"We don't need to reinvent the wheel," Kessler said of establishing a fund to sock away money from surging natural gas production in his state. "This has been done and it is working to (North Dakota's) great benefit."

North Dakota voters approved the Legacy Fund in 2010 and it's been rising faster than predicted with booming oil production. Oil and gas revenue began gushing into the fund only since September 2011 and it topped $1.3 billion last month. The fund gets 30 percent of the state's oil and gas tax collections. None of the money can be spent until 2017, and only then if the Legislature decides by a two-thirds vote to dip into it.

West Virginia did little to bank revenue from the state's massive coal deposits over the years and it's paying for it now, Kessler said.

"If we had saved a penny, or a nickel or a dime a ton from our coal reserves we'd be one of the richest states in the union instead of one of the poorest. We didn't have good sense to put any money aside and save it," said Kessler, noting that the coal industry is on the decline. "The coal seams are thinner now and the regulatory framework is much more challenging."

West Virginia now has "a second bite at the apple" with burgeoning natural gas production from the rich Marcellus shale formation that lies deep beneath much of the state, Kessler said. Some of the tax revenue should be set aside for tax relief, investments and for reserves when natural gas production dries up.

"I'd prefer not to spend it like drunken sailors," Kessler said of the growing tax revenue from natural gas production. "I'd prefer to set it aside for the future."

Sen. Dwight Cook, R-Mandan, chairman of the Senate Finance and Taxation Committee, said about 14 of his fellow North Dakota lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats — will host the West Virginia delegation.

"I do know West Virginia has a lot of energy development going on and I think they want to see what we did right and what we did wrong and how we got the Legacy Fund set up," Cook said. "We're going to try to answer all of their questions."

The visiting lawmakers also are slated to get updates from North Dakota regulators and industry officials on the state's energy production and its impacts. A delegation of California lawmakers also visited North Dakota earlier this month to learn about the state's oil and gas tax savings account and for a status on the state's energy industry, Cook said.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who will be out of town of Thursday, said he welcomes a look at North Dakota's energy industry and how the money is handled in the state that boasts a nearly $2 billion surplus, even after doubling the size of its budget over the past decade.

Dalrymple said all states should strive to build a savings account.

"Whether you have a large surplus or not, I think it's good public policy to try to set aside funds for the future," Dalrymple said.

Kessler said sending the West Virginia lawmakers, along with a few staff members, will cost that state about $24,500.

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