Time for North Dakota to invest in itself
Some years ago, I had the privilege of working with Allan Young, former chairperson of the North Dakota Republican Party, who had come to the University of North Dakota as a slightly older than average graduate student. One day I asked Allan what motivated him to enroll for an advanced degree.
He explained that he recently had come into good fortune and he now had the opportunity to spend money on a wide range of options. After considering the alternatives, he explained, “I decided to invest in myself.”
He could have dissipated his new-found prosperity on riotous living, world cruises, and other temporary pursuits, but he chose the kind of long-term investing that yields healthy dividends year after year. North Dakota should take a page out of Allan Young’s investment guide.
State Budget Director Pam Sharp just reported to the Legislature’s Budget Section that revenue for the state’s oil trust fund would be $500 million – twice the original estimate. Even without these figures, General Wesley Clark, an investment and energy consultant, predicted to the Renewable Energy Action Summit at Bismarck State College that North Dakota would be the future energy capital of North America if we invested in the future.
All of this oil money means that the state government will have massive amounts to give away for riotous living or to invest in the education, economic, people, energy and water infrastructures that will serve North Dakotans for generations to come.
Those suffering from the storm cellar mentality will want to bury it in “rainy day” funds, mandated savings accounts and just about anything except investing it in long-term assets. We saw this mindset in the last session when millions of dollars were so cleverly spirited away that squirrels were left in awe.
Then there are others who would like to see the extra revenue politically dissipated throughout the state on the premise that expenditures are good if everybody gets some. Those fostering the Centers of Excellence are already hoping to increase payrolls, programs and overhead with the new oil money.
The state’s economic opportunities should command new investment but under the scrutiny of impartial experts, preferably panels of out-of-staters who have no stake in North Dakota politics. With the oil windfall, we can expect to see all sorts of grandiose proposals that have no realistic long-term promise.
Expanding educational opportunities for young and old alike would pay off big time, something we learned from the GI Bill that boosted the economy after World War II. Cleaning up dirty coal and diversifying energy sources both warrant serious consideration. North Dakota can now spend more of its own money on building its water infrastructure. With a booming state treasury, we can quit waiting for investors in Minneapolis, Chicago or New York to build our economic base. Neither do we need to plead for federal government help to fund every exigency when our own treasury is bulging. For the first time in history, we have the option of investing in ourselves.
The 2011 session of the Legislature will tell us whether or not we have the vision to do so.
Omdahl is a UND professor emeritus in political science and a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota.
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