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Legislatures can’t be trusted

By Staff | Oct 25, 2010

By a vote of 40 to 7 in the Senate and 82 to 8 in the House, the 2009 Legislative Assembly let it be known to the people of North Dakota that legislatures cannot be trusted. On November 2, it is asking the people to confirm that judgment by approving Measure No. 1.

Measure No. 1 would create a section of the state constitution to put 30 per cent of future oil revenue beyond the reach of the Legislature. The principal and earnings couldn’t be touched until 2017. After that, it would take a two-thirds vote in both houses to spend a maximum of 15 per cent of the fund each biennium.

Of course, the 2009 Legislature may not have been thinking about its own untrustworthiness. It may have considered itself the last Assembly with good judgment, making it necessary to protect the public from the less intelligent legislatures certain to be elected in future years.

If this measure is passed, the “legacy fund” will never be touched because getting a two-thirds vote in both houses on a spending measure is virtually impossible. There’s one exception. A two-thirds vote could be mustered if every section of the state and every interest group were given a share of the booty, whether they had a legitimate need or not. It would be pork barrel.

The North Dakota Legislature can be accused of many things but it can never be accused of reckless spending. If anything, the state’s culture requires a frugal legislative mentality and the Legislature has lived up to that standard since statehood. If anything, it would be more vulnerable to the claim that it has usually been too late with too little.

It does not take a genius to recognize that North Dakota is facing some important issues that may well require some unusual expenses. While our Congressional delegation has been earmarking millions of federal dollars to meet state needs, the days of the tooth fairy are over. Federal spending will be slashed in the next few years, requiring states to dig up their own resources to solve problems.

First of all, production of all of this oil money is raising havoc with the township, county and state highway systems in western North Dakota. The cost may look manageable under present funding scenarios but we haven’t even seen the worst of it yet. It could well run beyond the normal sources of highway revenue for the whole state, meaning that highway systems in eastern North Dakota may be abandoned to meet pressing needs in the west. As much as $400 million could be needed.

Then there are the water management problems. When federal sources dry up, North Dakota can’t just walk away from Fargo flood control, the Devils Lake-Valley City flooding, the Northwest Area Water Supply, drought protection in Fargo, not to mention the rural and community water systems relying on federal grants. We’re probably talking about another $4 billion in state money.

In spite of these obvious needs, Measure No. 1 will pass by a big margin November 2. But when the big crunch comes no one will admit voting for it.

Omdahl is a UND professor emeritus in political science and a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota.

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