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Published May 24 2012

Forum editorial: Business placed on hold

The prediction Wednesday by a leading state oil regulator that North Dakota’s population could mushroom to 1 million people delivered an exhilarating jolt to a state accustomed to gradual change. As oil companies continue their exploration of the bountiful Bakken and Three Forks formations in the Williston Basin, it becomes increasingly clear that North Dakota now lives in a very different world.

A few years ago, when the boom began to pick up speed, many in the Oil Patch were reluctant to respond quickly with beefed-up infrastructure. Cities like Williston got burned in the past when boom turned to bust. But there is a real cost to inaction, too, and state government leaders must keep that in mind also.

A case in point: the ongoing backlog involving business filings, including registrations and contractor licenses, at the Secretary of State’s Office. In a state that prides itself on its business climate, entrepreneurs have for months been frustrated by paperwork delays, which have been as high as five or six weeks and now are about four weeks. That compares to the one- or two-week wait once considered normal.

Four or five or six weeks might be an acceptable wait in other states, but that’s not good enough for North Dakota. Secretary of State Al Jaeger’s first response was to reduce public hours at his office for those coming to file papers. His office’s counter service now is reduced by three hours a day, restricted to from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., to help his staff catch up on filings.

Belatedly, Jaeger now is moving to request more staff. He plans to ask the state Emergency Commission – on which he sits – for authorization to reallocate money within his budget to add three full-time employees to address the filing backlog. The commission, which also includes the governor and several legislative leaders, meets quarterly, with its next meeting June 12.

Besides a budget reallocation request, an agency can seek an increased appropriation request from a state contingency fund, an option clearly listed on the request form. As a member of the commission, Jaeger should be well versed in the avenues. He can’t be faulted for failing to predict the future, but he can be for being much too slow to act, allowing the backlog to continue unnecessarily – literally putting business on hold.

North Dakota’s state government, long accustomed to lean times, has been reluctant to add staff. Nobody wants a bloated bureaucracy. But agency leaders – especially elected officials – owe it to their constituencies to be forceful advocates to get the staff members and other resources they need to serve the public. Jaeger, who otherwise has performed well, seems to have forgotten that imperative.

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