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N.D.’s budget needed to grow

Grand Forks Herald

Physicians learn it. Mechanics learn it. Pilots learn it. Parents learn it, too. “It” is a key lesson of adulthood and professionalism: One indicator, symptom or other piece of evidence usually isn’t enough.

Enough to diagnose a problem or base an important decision on, that is.

Or enough to make a valid judgment about the North Dakota budget. So, while the news that the state budget has tripled over the past 10 years is useful, it’s not enough evidence by itself to let one decide whether that budget has grown too large.

And as a recent Forum News Service story made clear, North Dakota voters and elected officials alike seem keenly aware of this core truth.

“In all, the state’s budget has tripled in size: from $4.7 billion in the 2001-03 two-year budget cycle to the $13.7 billion enterprise it is in 2013-15, including money from the federal government,” the story reported.

Now, for every North Dakotan who thinks about taxes and government, those words should raise red flags. Tripled in 10 years? But what if the boom goes bust? And is the money being spent on projects that the state really needs?

Those are great questions — and to answer them, the context of the spending growth is vital.

First, “North Dakota’s economy has grown even faster than its spending,” the story reports.

According to Pew research, “expenditures fell from 11.7 percent of the state’s personal income in the early 1990s to 10.8 percent in 2011.

“‘It really is a case where personal income growth has outpaced growth in spending. That’s what it looks like to us,’ said Barbara Rosewicz, a state fiscal health researcher with Pew Charitable Trusts.”

Pew’s conclusion is another key piece of evidence. And a reassuring one, given its implication that the state has enough revenue for the new spending to be sustained.

More evidence comes in the awareness shown by Gov. Jack Dalrymple and others of the difference between one-time spending and more permanent increases in the budget.

“And then there’s the Legacy Fund, the voter-approved piggybank now stocked with more than $1 billion from oil extraction taxes,” the story reports.

“‘That is the antidote to fears of a sudden drop-off,’ Dalrymple said.”

Last but not least, it’s clear that a majority of residents felt that where the state’s transportation, education and other infrastructure needs are concerned, North Dakota had some catching up to do.

For decades, North Dakota fell short on some basics, including even fundamentals such as paved roads. Dalrymple ran on a promise of careful — but not stingy — spending to strengthen that infrastructure, and he was handily elected.

Before him, former Gov. John Hoeven had been elected several times on much the same platform. And throughout the 2000s, the Republican supermajority in the Legislature quarreled about certain specifics but ultimately came to agree.

This case isn’t closed, of course. The numbers will keep coming, and residents must keep careful track of North Dakota’s credit rating, income growth and other indicators.

But as of now, the trends generally are positive, with very few omens warning that the infrastructure buildup can’t be sustained. North Dakota’s roads, schools and universities all are benefitting — and that’s leaving the state better equipped than ever to prosper in the coming years.

Forum News Service

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