Why A North Dakota Special Session Isn't Needed

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On Friday last week I appeared on Chris Berg’s 6:30 Point of View program discussing, among other topics, the possibility of a special legislative session. Governor Dalrymple is now saying that he’ll make a decision on whether or not to call the legislature to session some time in April.

As I said during the television segment on Friday, I think the push for a special legislative session this year is the result of a perfect storm of election year politics and local government opportunism. Democrats need an issue to campaign on this year, and when have local governments ever been satisfied with the amount of money they’re getting from the state, even in the best of time?

Here’s the case against a special session:

Regular Session

Governor Dalrymlpe is saying he’ll make a decision on a special legislative session in April. If he agrees to call the legislature to session, they’ll be convening just a little more than seven months before a new crop of legislators are elected. Just two months after that election, a new legislative session will be convened. Does anyone think that a special legislative session is going to accomplishing much of anything that will make a difference before the regular legislative session? Maybe, if a special session is so necessary, Democrats and others shouldn’t have waited until an election year to demand one.

Special Session Could Hurt Western North Dakota In Regular Session

As much as North Dakota’s leaders are loathe to admit it, there is a strong east-versus-west divide in state politics. If western North Dakota gets a special session to address spending needs just months before the regular session, that’s going to put western interests at a disadvantage. Eastern leaders won’t be so willing to go along with funding and other projects for western North Dakota, pointing that the western part of the state was already addressed in a special session. Is that a dynamic during the regular session western leaders really want?

There’s Still A Lot Of Money Unspent

One of the biggest issues in western North Dakota is transportation infrastructure. In many places the roads are overrun. Repairs and upgrades are desperately needed. But we should keep in mind that a lot of money has appropriated for western North Dakota needs, and a lot of that money hasn’t even been spent yet.

Case in point, this report from the state Department of Transportation shows that over $1.5 billion has been spent on western ND transportation projects:

dotbienniunfunding

Of that money, some $160 million went directly to western, oil-producing counties. And 46 percent of that funding hasn’t even been spent yet as of February 3rd, the date of this report:

amountspent

It’s hard to imagine that we need to convene a special session, just months before a regular session, to appropriate a bunch of funds when all the funds appropriated previously hasn’t been spent yet.

Western Spending Priorities Need Scrutiny

Local leaders in the oil patch have made a lot of headlines with their complaints – some might say histrionics – about state funding. But how are the locals spending their money? All the property development, commerce and population growth in the west has expanded tax bases and tax revenues there. Are western leaders spending local tax dollars frivolously while demanding that the state fund things like roads and cops?

There are some indications that the answer, in some areas of the west, is yes. Williston spent nearly $80 million on an aquatic center while simultaneously claiming that they didn’t have enough money for law enforcement. The aquatic center was funded by a sales tax increase dedicated to the Parks District. Should the rest of Nort Dakota have to pay because the citizens of Williston built themselves a water park instead of funding the local police department and/or infrastructure?

Obviously, some western leaders think the answer to that is “yes.” But one thing is certain: The spending decisions of western local government needs more scrutiny, though many at the state level seem reluctant to do that for political reasons.

Western Taxpayers Don’t Have Enough Skin In The Game

Much like western spending issues, western taxing issues need scrutiny as well. For instance, in Ward County (Minot), Burleigh County (Bismarck) and Cass County (Fargo) a residential home valued at $100,000 would pay $1,121.11, $1,289.79, and $2,209.23 in property taxes, respectively.

A similarly valued home would pay just $513.40 in property taxes in McKenzie County (Watford City).

That home in Williams County (Williston) would pay just $834.39.

We hear people talk about “local control” in North Dakota all the time. But what about local responsibility. Should local governments be able to keep their local taxes low, while punting the costs for needed spending to the state? Why should people in the rest of the state have to pay higher taxes, and also fund needed spending in places that won’t raise their taxes?

The politics surrounding the question of a special session are interesting, and they transcend partisan and ideological lines. From western Republicans demanding more money for their districts, to the oil industry hoping the state steps in to carry the burden of more oil impacts, to Democrats looking for a wedge issue in an election year, the forces pushing for a special session are powerful.

But I’m just not sure a special session in terms of timing, and responsible stewardship of state taxpayers, makes a lot of sense.

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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