Schafer Column: North Dakota Is No Stranger To Sequester-Style Budget Gimmicks


The recent news articles about the National Park Service not being able to keep open the Painted Canyon Overlook at the Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a sure example of how government officials are trying to show the lowly citizens how wrong they are to demand a more affordable government. “We’ll show them they need government by cutting the programs that they like so they will support more spending instead of trimming the budgets” they say to themselves in deciding where to cut.

In government circles, the playbook says when you are faced with budget cuts, the way to prove to the citizens they are wrong is to “cut the firemen first!” “That’ll show them they need to increase their tax payments to support needed government services.” No attempt is made to trim budgets by reducing unneeded and outdated and wasteful expenditures that don’t affect people’s lives first!

I encountered this mentality during the 1989 tax referrals in North Dakota. The legislature and Governor had passed increases for several taxes and the legislation was referred by petition to the ballot. In a special election in December of that year, in spite of Republican and Democratic appropriators traveling around the state telling us we just needed the money and there was nothing they could do to cut the budgets and in spite of the Governor trying to convince us he just could not run the government if he didn’t get the tax increases to spend, the people overwhelmingly rejected the tax increases.

The people spoke and the tax revenues were trimmed back.

Government officials said they would not even be able to plant flowers or water the lawn at the Capitol building, and the Governor canceled the traditional lighting of the Capitol building for the change of the New Year.

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Having grown up in Bismarck I highly regarded the tradition of lighting the new year numerals in the windows of the Capitol. I thought this was just another “in your face move” and said if things are that bad, I would pay for the lights on New Year’s Eve. The Governor just couldn’t find $275 in the budget so I thought I could keep the tradition alive by paying the costs.

Of course, government officials wanting to extract as much pain on the people as possible said I couldn’t pay for the show and suggested I just go away and let them seek revenge on the citizens.

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I mounted a campaign to call the Governor’s office to support the traditional lighting of the Capitol building on New Year’s Eve. The people responded and put so much pressure on the Governor that he relented and on midnight on December 31, 1990, the lights were switched to the New Year!

More importantly, the people showed they were not interested in games by the budgeteers and they had better get down to business and trim back the budgets without hurting and scaring people into paying more taxes.

I am so sad to see the same thing happening now with our federal officials and their doom and gloom projections over a minor cut back of projected increases in our federal budget outlays. And here is an example of how the politicians continually increase the costs of your government and try to make you willing participants.

When I left the USDA the annual operating budget was $19 Billion per year. Four years into the Obama Administration that budget is $25B and if you look at their website they are quick to show you the important work they are doing by cutting back from that budget. And I thought the Department was operating pretty dang well when I was there!

I know, without a doubt, that we could cut the USDA budget by billions of dollars without reducing services to our farmers and ranchers—and think of all the government agencies that are in the same situation! It is time for our government to stop trying to scare us into supporting more tax revenues and get down the important work of reducing the cost of our services to provide a more affordable and sustainable government for the people!

When I was governor we reduced our budgets, encouraged private sector investment which spurred the economy and as a result we were able to increase spending for education, health and safety for our citizens. North Dakota was just rated as the best run government in the United States, a perfect example of how proper handling of budgets can repair the relationship between government and the people.

The Obama Administration should stop whining and follow suit! Our country will be the better for it!