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Jane Ahlin, Published February 23 2013

Ahlin: North Dakota Legislature proudly walks backward

My nephew loved the old bumper sticker that said, “North Dakota: It’s cold … but it’s flat.”

Mocking, to be sure, the bumper sticker also is funny. It occurs to me that a bumper sticker in that vein describing the 2013 Legislature might read, “North Dakota’s legislative majority: It’s backward … but it’s stingy.”

Unfortunately for North Dakotans, the truth of that phrase is decidedly unfunny. In this 21st century, with North Dakota enjoying unprecedented prosperity, the Legislature is on an ideological march into the past.

Never mind North Dakota’s

$2 billion surplus. As reported by TJ Jerke for The Forum News Service, “A day after lawmakers and the Department of Public Instruction showed how successful early childhood education is, a Senate committee said ‘do not pass’ to a bill that would provide funding to develop pre-kindergarten programs across the state.”

Or, as one of the bill’s sponsors put it, pre-K funding was “zeroed out.”

Exemplifying backward thinking at the root of the decision, one Senate Appropriations Committee member was quoted as calling the pre-K years a time when children should be “bonding with the family” rather than going to outside learning programs. (No doubt that good senator loves “Ozzie and Harriet” reruns.) The majority of committee members also seemed to think funding early childhood learning was tantamount to taking away the rights and responsibilities of parents.

Heaven knows the Republican legislative majority is loath to inflict state interference on parents – well, unless we’re talking about parents dealing with problem pregnancies. Then the Republican Legislature is fanatical about getting into their bedrooms and having the state dictate what can and cannot be said in their doctors’ offices. (When it comes to women’s wombs, “enquiring” legislators want to know.) They see no reason to waste money on early childhood learning when so much more can be spent in court defending indefensible “personhood” legislation. Certain that kids don’t need early access to education no matter what the experts say, their focus is that the reproductive life of every North Dakota woman be under state control.

But on with stinginess. North Dakota had the chance to pilot an innovative program to integrate the arts into STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) programming making it “STEAM,” a change that would have cost $125,000 over a two-year period. Again, despite expert testimony, the bill (HB 1334) was killed in the education committee, a group keen on ideology, not new thinking – probably not keen on science magazines, either. However, in Scientific American last summer, writer Steven Ross Pomeroy told of the growing belief in science and education communities that the arts are necessary for scientific advancements – that creativity involved in each enhances creativity in the other. For instance, American painter Abbot Thayer invented “camouflage for soldiers in the United States armed forces,” “Earl Bakken based his pacemaker on a musical metronome,” and “Japanese origami inspired medical stents and improvements to vehicle airbag technology.” (A $2 billion surplus is no reason to support off-the-wall thinking like that.)

Lastly, let’s not forget the Republican majority’s backwardness in refusing to end discrimination against GLBT residents or its stinginess in not funding milk for poor children nor looking to the future by aggressively supporting child care across the state.

Here’s the thing: North Dakota wants to keep our young professionals and attract others to come here. Although we have the economy, that won’t happen unless we are a family-friendly state. A state that meddles in the reproductive lives of its residents, treats education as a state burden and ignores child care can’t be competitive. The only thing we’ll be vying for is place of last resort.


Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.