I often get asked why I’m so skeptical of demands for ever-increasing oil patch spending.
I’ll tell you that it’s not because I don’t recognize a need for spending in the west. With a booming economy, bustling commerce and explosive population growth there’s no question that we need more of just about everything out west. But what gives me pause is attitudes like this one from local western North Dakota leaders:
“I think the state really has to step up to the plate and they’re way behind the
8-ball,” Mountrail County Commissioner Greg Boschee said.
Following the North Dakota Association of Oil and Gas Counties meeting in Williston on Thursday, Boschee said it’s clear: Mountrail, Williams, McKenzie and Dunn counties “are gonna get hammered for the next 10, 15 years.”
Boschee said the oil-impacted areas need a lot more than what Wardner’s proposal provides, but it’s a big step.
“It’s a great step forward but I’m not going to be the one that says, ‘Yeah, this is gonna take care of us,’” he said.
Boschee said if legislators are worried about giving western North Dakota more money than it can spend, he has a deal.
“Give it to us and if we don’t spend it … we will give it back,” he said. “They always say we can’t spend it. Try us.”
Really? There is no small amount of evidence to indicate that there is only so much spending that can be done in western North Dakota in one biennium given the constraints of the weather and labor availability. Earlier this summer, when Democrats and some western leaders were demanding a special session to appropriate more funding for the west, oil-producing counties still had 46 percent of their previous appropriation for transportation unspent.
Not that I question Mr. Boschee’s dedication to spending. Since when has any branch of government, anywhere, had trouble finding (and even inventing) ways to spend taxpayer dollars?
When we talk about funding for the oil patch, there seems to be only one narrative: Western communities need more money, and no amount of “more” will ever be enough.
There are some in western North Dakota who think that oil-producing counties should get the majority of the state’s oil tax revenues forever because those revenues are generated in their counties. Of course, if Fargo claimed that of the sales tax back when Cass County had far more commerce than the rest of the state, western North Dakota leaders would have been outraged.
I hate to use the g-word, but there’s absolutely an element of greed at play here. Opportunism. Bureaucrats who know they have a trump card – “oil impacts” – and are willing to use it to get not just what they need but what they want, at the expense of other spending needs in the rest of the state. Or even – gasp! – some substantial tax burden relief.
Here’s what we need to talk more about: How are local communities spending the tax dollars they’re already getting? Where are the revenues from the expanded tax bases these communities are enjoying?
Every new housing unit, every new store or restaurant, adds to the tax base. It means more property tax revenues, more sales taxes, etc. Is that money being spent appropriately?
In North Dakota local governments have a bad habit of demanding local control, but refusing to take local responsibility. We see it in the property tax debate all the time where increasing property taxes, driven by increasing local budgets, are somehow the state’s problem to fix (by sending more money to the local government, naturally).
We need to crack through that, make sure we’re holding locals accountable so that perhaps we can see a few less brash spending challenges issued in our newspapers.