Don’t Let Grandstanding Lawmakers Delay Governor’s Residence Project

FILE PHOTO: Current governor's residence. (Korrie Wenzel/Grand Forks Herald)

The governor’s residence on the capitol grounds in Bismarck has always been a fraught political topic. For years state lawmakers, led in some ways by Rep. Jim Kasper of Fargo (who has a guest post on this topic on SAB today as well), have pushed to build a new residence. The old one has a leaky roof and mold issues as well as concerns over security and compliance with handicap accessibility codes. All told the facility has about $2.5 million worth of needed maintenance and improvements.

In past political cycles the state’s governors – Jack Dalrymple and John Hoeven before him – have worked behind the scenes to scuttle this legislation. Even though the governor’s residence belongs to the state, and is available to any governor the people elect, they were afraid the voters would perceive a new residence as being built for them personally.

So shallow, symbolic politics kept a new residence from being built for years. Until the 2015 legislation session when lawmakers passed a bill to spend $4 million from the state’s Capitol Building Trust Fund and $1 million in privately-raised dollars to pay for a new construction.

All seemed to be going well. Roughly half the $1 million in private dollars has already been raised, with all involved confident that the remainder will be collected in timely fashion. Construction was on rails to begin this summer, with only a few slight delays.

But now shallow politics is raising its head again. North Dakota has hit a rocky patch on fiscal issues, and as lawmakers ready to assemble in Bismarck for a special session called by Dalrymple last week, a Republican and a Democrat are promising a bill to delay the construction.

While I find the instincts to protect the taxpayers on display from both of these men to be admirable, I don’t think delay the residence construction for what amount to purely symbolic and political reasons to be wise.

Rep. Jerry Kelsh, a Democrat from Fullerton, told a meeting of the Capitol Grounds Building Commission that he plans to introduce a bill during the special session to halt the building of the residence for the time being.

Rep. Jim Kasper, a Republican from Fargo, says in a SAB guest post today that he was already working on similar legislation.

While I find the instincts to protect the taxpayers on display from both of these men to be admirable, I don’t think delay the residence construction for what amount to purely symbolic and political reasons to be wise.

For one thing, a delay would likely increase the cost. “Had we not had some delay in bidding or delays in design we’d already be in the ground and this wouldn’t be an issue,” Jim Poolman, a co-chairman of the task force raising private dollars for the residence, told me this morning. According to a report today in the Bismarck Tribune construction activity could begin as soon as August 1, the same week lawmakers will be meeting in special session. Pushing that date back would inevitably mean more costs.

For another, there is the half-million in privately-donated dollars to consider. “If they delay this project my personal viewpoint is we’d have to give some of that money back,” Poolman told me. Raising private dollars was one of the requirements of the original legislation authorizing the new construction. If some of those dollars disappear because the project begins to look uncertain the delays (and related costs) may be more severe than these lawmakers are expecting.

Private donations must be above a $500,000 threshold for construction to go forward.

Finally, there’s the fact that these dollars are not coming from a source lawmakers could use to shore up the budget shortfalls they’ll be in special session to address. As I mentioned, the bulk of the funds from the project are coming from the Capitol Building Trust Fund. Per the State Treasurer’s office, that fund was “created under Article IX of the North Dakota Constitution for the construction and maintenance of ‘public buildings at the capital.'” The balance, as of March 31, was just over $6.8 million.

If lawmakers delay spending from that fund, they cannot use those dollars elsewhere in the budget (unless it’s on another construction or maintenance project on the capital grounds) because they’re constrained not merely by statute but by the state constitution. Meaning that delaying this spending will have little impact on the state’s overall budget shortfall.

Meaning, in turn, that this is all meaningless posturing because politicians are afraid of what voters might perceive.

Again, I appreciate that lawmakers like Rep. Kelsh and Rep. Kasper want to give the appearance that they are good stewards of the taxpayer’s dollars, but a better use of their energy might be in explaining to taxpayers why moving ahead is the more fiscally sound option at this point.

Delaying this project will cost taxpayers more in the long run. Delaying it will have exactly zero fiscal benefit. Let’s move ahead.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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