North Dakota’s legislative leaders are again wringing their hands. The state’s budget is said to be a billion or more dollars short. We will have to dip into our “rainy day” fund. We need to cut everything, we are told. State agencies have been mandated to cut their budgets across the board and then to cut again.
Our state’s economy is said to be in a recession. Oil production has dropped off as world petroleum prices have plummeted. Oil prices have not been this low since…what? 2008? The lowest in eight years? Really? To listen to the moaning from Bismarck, you’d think we’d never in our lifetimes seen such a calamity.
How soon we forgot our own history. Oil prices have gone up and down since oil was discovered under the grass west of the Missouri. Did we think this time the boom would be never ending? Did we think we could pump a million barrels a day of oil from deep under the earth and it would not affect the price? Did we think that consumers would not cut back on oil consumption if the price stayed at all time highs? Did we believe that we would not have to recon with the havoc burning carbon is having on our planet?
Did anyone believe that agriculture prices would stay at all time highs forever? Anyone who did either just fell off the beet truck or has a very short memory.
Why is anyone acting like all of this is a surprise?
Now candidates for public office are decrying our state’s increased spending over the last two legislative sessions as if those decisions were a drunken shopping spree with a stolen credit card. In reality many of the increases in spending reflected years and years of a “no new taxes,” “no new spending” frugality. We had been so successful in balancing our budgets that we had earned ourselves a spot at the bottom of the charts for teacher pay and education. Our recent low unemployment rates generated by the boom in oil drilling jobs hid the fact that we have one of the highest rates of women who work outside the home and families who need more than one income to just get by. We had some of the lowest wages in the country until recently. Much of the money spent by the last two legislatures was simply catching up.
There is no doubt that in down times we need to tighten our belts and reduce our spending. Cutting a flat rate across the board may be equitable, but it is rarely fair. There are costs that cannot be cut. Reducing the state’s responsibility for health care costs, for example, does not really cut the cost. It simply shifts it to employees. Reducing money spent on education may result in cuts to staffing and programs in elementary, high schools and colleges. Those cuts cost students’ opportunities for learning. Cuts to K-12 education shift costs from the state to local governments. Costs to college students will take the form of higher fees and tuition. Teacher reductions may result in students staying in school longer in order to complete the requirements for their degrees. Will our standard of education be the same when college courses are being taught by temporary adjunct faculty who have no job security, no benefits and are basically part-time contract labor?
Will cutting staff from government agencies make them more efficient or will it just make it even more difficult to get your drivers license renewed or your workman’s compensation claim settled?
The state of North Dakota has one of the lowest income tax rates in the country. While our property tax system needs improvement, we can’t on one hand eliminate our local taxes and on the other require local government to do more.
We have to question whether our current budget deficits are solely the result of the twin downturns in the energy and agriculture sectors or if they are in part the result of years of misguided tax policies.
At least the legislature will be back where they are most comfortable–refusing all requests for increased funding because we don’t have enough revenue. That’s the kind of governance they are used to.
Copyright © 2016 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains