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Published April 17 2013

Forum editorial: They piled it high and deep

The justification North Dakota state senators used Tuesday to vote against funding for the Fargo-Moorhead diversion was akin to the stuff that comes out the back end of a bull. In terms of logic and honesty, it smelled bad. In terms of political butt-cover, it didn’t work. Still, they piled it high and deep.

The Senate vote on an amendment to the water commission budget bill was close, 24-23 to approve. It prohibited Fargo from using state funds for flood works, such as levees and home buyouts. Senators reversed course Wednesday, voting 29-16 to add language to the bill to satisfy concerns about the diversion, and to allow state funds to be used for associated flood control work in and around Fargo. It’s a generous appropriation: $450 million. That’s good news, but it does not give a pass to senators who voted for the first language.

The original amendment, now gone, was the work of House Minority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo. It required that federal authorization and funding for the diversion be secured before the diversion and other Fargo projects could move forward. It was a backward approach to jointly funded public works projects, which have always required state and local commitments before full federal support was forthcoming. Yet, opponents of the diversion used that thin-as-tissue cover to explain their anti-diversion stance.

If that standard had been applied to any number of big public works projects – major highways in oil country, water supply pipelines in the west, flood control for Grand Forks and Wahpeton-Breckenridge – they would never have been accomplished. But wait, say diversion opponents, the diversion is so much bigger than anything the state has undertaken, it must be seen in a different light.

Hogwash. Yes, the diversion is huge and expensive. But that fact is precisely the reason why it will be funded and constructed in phases over eight to 10 years. Congress is not going to appropriate a billion dollars in one fell swoop. The money will follow the construction schedule. Funding will come in appropriate amounts to pay for work over a series of fiscal years. State and local obligations will be met in the same year-to-year way. There is nothing new or surprising in all that.

So when wrong-headed senators objected to “the piecemeal way” the diversion will be built, they were either ignorant or were purposefully misrepresenting accepted methods and protocols for building big public works projects. Given the fact-starved Senate debate, both characterizations apply, with the larger share being ignorance salted by parochial regionalism.

The final fate of the legislation is yet to come. Several steps, including House consideration and conference committee, are next. But the compromise language looks good.

It is likely smarter heads will prevail and the bill with the Fargo funding will be approved by both chambers and signed by the governor in a flood of common sense. That’s the expectation, but given the Legislature’s irresponsible behavior this session, it might be too much to expect.

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