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Published January 02 2011

Forum editorial: A tale of two states

As lawmakers from Minnesota and North Dakota convene this week for their respective legislative sessions, they will walk into far different circumstances.

Minnesota faces a $6 billion deficit. North Dakota has a $1 billion surplus.

Minnesota legislators know what has to happen to correct the situation: a likely combination of severe spending cuts and rising taxes and fees.

Many North Dakota legislators, among the most conservative in the nation, are already telling anyone who will listen that the state can’t get carried away and instead should sit on most of the surplus because a rainy day may not be far away.

Really, both states could learn a lesson or two from each other and end up far better off in the future.

There is no doubt that Minnesota must curb its tendency to overspend. Outgoing Gov. Tim Pawlenty was the first top leader in many, many years to say “no” to much of the out-of-control spending habits the state had developed over the years.

Critics of the governor asserted that most of Pawlenty’s hard spending freezes or cuts simply put more stress on local governments or raised taxes in the form of increased fees, and some of that is true, but his administration at least attempted to establish more fiscal responsibility, which was sorely needed.

North Dakota, on the other hand, is in an enviable position not so much because of outstanding fiscal leadership but because of fortuitous financial circumstances in the energy and agricultural sectors. Still, the majority of elected stewards of the state’s newfound riches seem reluctant to re-invest in critical areas.

North Dakota should be spending money to build the best systems it can to harness the energy, education and food resources that make it an emerging superpower in some of the nation’s most critical investment areas.

With well-placed investments in energy, education, transportation infrastructure and agricultural research, North Dakota stands to gain even more businesses, jobs and taxpayer-contributing citizens than it’s seen in recent years. The state should lay an even stronger foundation on which to build.

This isn’t to say that one state is better positioned than the other to retain its high quality of life.

Minnesota, by its history of heavily investing in education, transportation and the environment, has established a wonderful place for people to grow and explore. People move to Minnesota from elsewhere to experience this kind of community commitment.

North Dakota’s wide open spaces are attractive to many, as is its safe and clean environment. Its business climate is extremely favorable to investors, and its work force is among the most dedicated and

hardworking anywhere.

The two states share many of the same assets. But they have far different approaches to their finances.

It’s time Minnesota further tightens the purse strings. It’s time North Dakota more heavily invests in its future.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.