North Dakota gets a lot of attention for soaring tax revenues. In the last biennium, the state exceeded legislative projections for general fund revenues by nearly 50 percent, or about $1.7 billion. Already, just months into the 2013 – 2015 biennium, the state has already exceeded projections by $134 million. Compared to the previous biennium’s actual revenues, through December of 2013 (January numbers aren’t out yet) revenues in the current biennium $278.78 million or nearly 21 percent.
Those revenue numbers are amazing, but what may be even more shocking is just how much money the state has squirreled away in its various funds.
Mike Marcil, the CEO of Bakken.com, said during an interview on Valley News Live with Chris Berg that by the time the current biennium ends the state may have as much as $20 billion tucked away. Or enough money to operate the entire state for at least a couple of years without collecting a dime in taxes or fees.
So where is all that money? It’s actually, shockingly, really hard to figure it out. Marcil has told me that it took his team months to track down their data, and that’s just not right. Even the federal government’s complicated finances are available online for scrutiny, why should the state of North Dakota be any different? Agree or disagree with how these funds are being managed, shouldn’t we get to know where the money is?
Well, someone in state government has taken a step toward changing that situation. Yesterday State Treasurer Kelly Schmidt contacted me to say that her office launched a new part of their website. The “Government Funds” section of the website is a list of the state’s various state funds, where the revenues come from, and how they’re managed.
It’s far from perfect, but it is a good start. It would be nice if the list contained up to date information about the balances in these funds, and perhaps some info to track the flow of funds into and out of them, but at least taxpayers finally have a place to go for a comprehensive guide to these funds.
Good on Treasurer Schmidt for this move in the direction of transparency. And this is an important issue. As important, I’d say, as accurate revenue projections (which have become a rancorous issue of late). We’re often told that these funds can’t be touched, that their purposes and revenues are enshrined in law, but the law – be it statute or the state constitution itself – can be changed. It’s one thing for the government to save funds prudently, hedging against future problem problems or creating pools of money for specific purposes.
It’s quite another for the state to lock away billions upon billions worth of taxpayer wealth far beyond what is reasonable.
North Dakota needs to have a debate on this issue, and Treasurer Schmidt has helped inform that debate.