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Kyle Potter, Published November 09 2013

Budgeting process far from straightforward

For an interactive look at North Dakota's government spending click here.

BISMARCK - Budgeting for state government is a messy business.

It’s not just one big bucket the Legislature fills with tax dollars. It’s more of a network of more than 75 buckets – each a different size, each that gets its own attention and funding. The buckets, paid for by a mix of state and federal funds, combine to make the $13.7 billion enterprise that is North Dakota’s state government.

Every odd-numbered year, the state’s elected officials meet in Bismarck to create a two-year state budget for the next biennium. The governor releases his executive recommendations, which generally sets a framework for the legislators tasked with passing a budget that the governor will eventually sign.

And the finished product is filled with catches and caveats.

“There really are a lot of moving parts,” Gov. Jack Dalrymple said. “They change from biennium to biennium.”

On paper, the Office of Management and Budget’s records for the state’s 2009-11 budget show the governor’s office received a more-than-$100 million funding increase. But that’s because the governor’s office was charged with doling out federal money from the economic stimulus.

The state’s Aeronautics Commission, which oversees aviation in North Dakota, looks like a forgotten child in this biennium until you track down the $60 million for airport infrastructure repairs that was routed through the Department of Trust Lands’ budget.

On the state’s budget tracking sheets, several state agencies look like they were defunded or scrapped altogether. But, in reality, the State Seed Department’s funding source was changed, and the Department of Emergency Services was moved into the National Guard.

Much of the property tax cuts from this past session are technically government expenditures because the state put more money into the Department of Public Instruction in order to buy down some of the local property tax levies that traditionally fund schools. The State Treasurer’s Office didn’t really receive a $300 million funding bump.

Then there’s North Dakota’s increasing use of one-time spending for buildings on college campuses, technological upgrades and infrastructure improvements. That money – more than $2.4 billion of it in this biennium – is the same as any other general fund money. But Dalrymple and top state lawmakers draw a distinction between that type of spending and ongoing expenditures, like for school funding.

Lawmakers didn’t start using one-time spending until 2009, but it’s become a bona fide budgetary tool since then. More than a third of the $6.8 billion in general fund spending lawmakers approved this spring was in one-time spending.

Got all that?