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Sen. Kent Conrad, Published March 03 2009

Stimulus includes North Dakota needs

Over three months at the end of last year, I held town hall meetings in more than 50 North Dakota towns and cities – visiting almost every county in North Dakota to hear directly from community leaders and everyday citizens.

County commissioners talked about putting road-building projects on hold because of the cost of asphalt. College presidents told me they couldn’t afford to heat aging and inefficient campus buildings. And I heard from local business owners concerned that the nation’s declining economy would hurt the economy of North Dakota.

All these conversations – hundreds of them – helped me decide to eventually support the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. What also prompted me to vote for the stimulus bill were the dire forecasts of learned economists as diverse as Dr. Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Economy.com and a former adviser to the presidential campaign of Republican Sen. John McCain, and Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve and a leading scholar of the Great Depression.

Finally, I was struck by the news that North Dakota manufacturers have already experienced the aftershocks of a shrinking global economy and have furloughed workers; we would be foolish to believe we are immune to the troubles beyond our borders.

The stimulus bill was not without its critics, including me. Most importantly, I believed that the legislation needed to be focused more on the housing crisis that started our economic downturn.

But in the end, I had to weigh the risk of not acting against the concerns I had with the package. And I had to consider all of the positive impacts the bill would have on our state.

In fact, the stimulus bill goes right to the heart of many of the conversations I heard in my three months going town to town in North Dakota, including:

- More than $170 million toward road improvement projects in North Dakota –a critical, job-creating need, as many county commissioners told me.

- More than $85 million the state government can use to help our public universities and colleges meet high-priority projects, from making buildings more energy efficient to updating classroom technology.

- More than $25 million toward weatherizing homes to improve energy efficiency, and more than $24 million in energy-related funding.

- More than $39 million for high-priority water projects.

- More than $266 million in middle-class tax relief, or about $860 for the average family at a rate of savings of more than $70 a month.

- $156 million in relief from the Alternative Minimum Tax.

The bill is not perfect; rarely is any legislation perfect when it is the product of compromise between people of diverse opinion. But it is better than the alternative, which is to do nothing. President Herbert Hoover did nothing while the country’s economy slid into what today we call the Great Depression. Economists told me that we risked a similar economic collapse if we did not act.

We have good reason to believe that news will get worse before it gets better. But the stimulus bill will help turn our national economy around and lay the groundwork for stronger economic growth in the future. It will help soften the impact we feel in North Dakota of any future aftershocks of the declining national economy. And it includes the priorities of North Dakota – priorities echoed by dozens and dozens of local leaders that I heard from in county after county across the state.

Conrad, D-N.D., is chairman of the U.S. Senate Budget Committee.