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Matt Von Pinnon, Published March 17 2012

Von Pinnon: It's the people's money: Spend it or give it back

We learned last week that North Dakota government expects to have $1.5 billion in surplus and reserves by the middle of next year.

By most measures, that’s an extremely conservative estimate. Tax collections from almost all categories continue to blow away projections, and the pace of oil production is only picking up.

It’s why The Forum launched the “Billion-dollar Bracket” contest on today’s front page. We asked readers to submit their ideas for how the state should best spend its immense and rapidly growing public wealth. The most-common eight ideas face off today, with online voters deciding each week which ideas advance to the next round.

Ask most people in North Dakota, and they tout the state’s financial health as a measure of pride, as they should when compared to the financial problems facing other states.

But when will the people of North Dakota say enough is enough when it comes to socking away more and more money for that eventual rainy day? After all, that money belongs to them – not the relative few who manage and oversee the state’s coffers.

Government was not intended as a profit center. Government is supposed to tax people for the services or benefits it provides back to the people. While it should not grow or operate beyond its means, it likewise should not collect much more than it needs.

It’s interesting that North Dakota’s elected state leaders are largely from two backgrounds: agriculture and business. Both camps are conservative by nature. Farmers know there will be good times and bad times, depending on the weather and crop prices. It’s normal for them to save when times are good so they have adequate means when times are bad. Businesspeople save because they are profit-driven. Both of these backgrounds dominate North Dakota’s citizen legislature and heavily influence how the state handles its money.

Several legislators have said that having all this extra money makes their spending decisions much harder – a ludicrous statement if there ever was one. It’s like a rich person saying that choosing between a Cadillac and a Rolls Royce is a more difficult decision than the single mother of two who must decide whether to pay rent or feed her kids.

And then there’s Measure No. 2, the hotly debated June ballot item that will ask voters if they want to repeal property taxes, which would force them to pay for local services in another way.

Most locally elected officials are telling anyone who will listen that approving such a plan will serve only to concentrate power and wealth in Bismarck and harm local decision-making ability.

They’re probably right, but it may be hard to convince folks whose property taxes continue to rise each year even as state coffers are bursting at the seams with all sorts of unspent tax collections.

It’s time for the state’s elected leaders to either seriously invest a good chunk of that money back into the state or give it back to the people through refunds or significant tax reductions. Only then will the state realize true prosperity.


Von Pinnon is editor of The Forum. Reach him at (701) 241-5579.