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Published October 05 2010

ND Republican state senator pushes plan to control federal debt

BISMARCK – A plan aimed at controlling the nation’s federal debt has interest in North Dakota.

Sen. Curtis Olafson, R-Edinburg, wants the state Legislature to support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that says an increase in the federal debt requires approval from a majority of the nation’s state legislatures.

“I think there are a lot of people in this country who are becoming increasingly concerned about the level of debt. I’m not alone in that,” Olafson said.

The nation’s federal debt is more than $13 trillion. A Gallup poll earlier this year found “terrorism and federal government debt tie as the most worrisome issues to Americans when they consider threats to the future wellbeing of the U.S.”

However, some state lawmakers expressed doubt over how realistic the amendment would be in practice. House Majority Leader Al Carlson of Fargo called the initiative “a very good issue,” but also said it was “a long shot.”

“The problem the states have is that we rely on a lot of federal programs,” Carlson said.

If money is taken away, it would be difficult for the state to afford all of the things it does, he said.

House Assistant Minority Leader Kenton Onstad of Parshall said the idea is a nice thought, but problematic.

“To me, we put a halt to all of our federal funding that’s going to be provided for the Red River Valley and flood control,” he said. “Anytime we ask for federal assistance, is that something that went against the federal debt?”

The amendment would also likely mean state lawmakers would need to work full time to react to situations, Onstad said. North Dakota lawmakers now meet in session every two years.

Olafson said he didn’t think the amendment would be used often once Congress knew it needed to prioritize available funds.

Getting all of the nation’s legislatures involved may not be as efficient as letting Congress handle the matter, but Congress is unable to restrain itself from increasing the federal debt, Olafson said.

“This would provide a check and balance,” he said. “When something isn’t working, then we better try to do something different.”

Olafson became involved in the issue after being contacted by Dallas-based RestoringFreedom.Org.

The group’s website states, “If there was ever a glaring omission in the Constitution, it is the omission of a mechanism to control the ability of the federal government to generate debt. The proposed amendment will bind the current and future Congresses to a process requiring a national discussion before increasing the federal debt.”

Olafson plans to submit a resolution to the state Legislature for consideration. If approved, it would say North Dakota favors a convention to be called for the federal debt constitutional amendment.

Article V of the Constitution says Congress shall call a convention for proposing amendments upon application of two-thirds of the nation’s legislatures.

A proposed amendment becomes part of the Constitution when ratified by three-fourths, or 38, of the state legislatures, according to Article V. Congress may also allow ratification by conventions in three-fourths of states.

Sen. Tom Fiebiger, D-Fargo, said the resolution and its timing are curious.

“Prior to President Obama’s election, we had a Republican House, Senate and president, and we had eight years of financial irresponsibility that drove our country into the ditch,” he said. “It seems to me the president should get four years to work to undo that damage and get our country out of the ditch and back on track.”

Fiebiger said it also seems “a bit disingenuous” for North Dakota to propose a resolution when it’s asking the federal government for $1 billion for a diversion and large amounts for farm programs.

James Booth of RestoringFreedom.Org said his Texas-based organization wrote the amendment in March and is working to roll out the idea to all 50 states. He said the issue is nonpartisan and aims to bring the states back into a role in the nation’s outcomes.

When asked about the federal government’s need to spend money quickly, like in times of war declarations, Booth said every state has the ability to respond to a disaster.

“It’s not certain that the states wouldn’t allow them to borrow money under the right circumstances and under the right purposes,” Booth said. “But those will reflect the result of a national discussion and reflect the will of the American people. I personally trust the American people.”

Booth said his organization is a group of businessmen who do not profit by this effort. He called it “a patriotic undertaking,” and said they want to solve problems for America.

A bipartisan national commission is studying the nation’s fiscal situation and must vote on a final report of recommendations by Dec. 1.

Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co.