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  Spend Stimulus Money or Give It Back

By Staff | Apr 27, 2009

As part of the national effort to jump start a dead economy, around 100,000 North Dakota recipients of Social Security benefits will be receiving $25 million in May to boost their purchasing power. If the behavior of the Legislature is setting the example, however, it may be money poured down the proverbial rat hole.

Under the stimulus program, North Dakota is slated to receive over $600 million. This money is coming to the state to be spent immediately for infrastructure work and programs that increase economic activity. But the Legislature doesn’t plan to do that.

At last report, it was planning to use the money for items already in Governor John Hoeven’s budget and stuffing $300 million of the federal money in the state mattress. If an individual person in government did that sort of thing, it would be a crime called misappropriation of public funds and the Legislature would be steaming mad.

It seems that we just hauled Sandy Blunt, former administrator of Workers Insurance and Safety (workers compensation) through the courts for something like that. Even though his authority was unclear, he spent money on efforts to build staff morale. For that, he went to court charged with misappropriation.

It isn’t that North Dakota doesn’t have good uses for stimulus money. According to the last management assessment of states conducted by Governing magazine, North Dakota got a B- because “building maintenance was more than 50 per cent underfunded” and “routine roadway upkeep was set back.” It also noted that “salary levels pose a significant challenge across state government. Overall, compensation remains uncompetitive.” University graduates leaving the state will attest to that.

Chronic circumvention of federal goals by states explains the red tape that restricts the use of federal money. States are ingenious at devising ways to frustrate national priorities and the federal people know it. Apparently, the stimulus program doesn’t have enough red tape.

In the final analysis, there is only one honest thing to do. If we don’t plan to use the stimulus money for the purpose intended, then we ought to send the diverted $300 million back to the federal government. In criminal cases, that would be called “restitution”.

The same holds true for seniors. If the stimulus program is going to work, North Dakota’s Social Security beneficiaries can’t buy into the storm cellar mentality demonstrated by the Legislature. Needless to say, at ages 65 and older, they will be sorely tempted to put it in a backyard coffee can.

Not far removed from memories of the depression of the 1930s, they will find it doubly hard to break lose with their $250 checks. If they find the challenge of spending too great, they could always send it to the Red Cross or the Salvation Army where it would replenish funds depleted by flood relief. As a last resort, if they can’t bring themselves to spending it, Uncle Sam should get it back.

Omdahl is former lieutenant governor of N.D. and professor emeritus at UND.

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