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LLOYD OMDAHL: Plans for Legacy Fund need statewide input

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When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, he called the Israelites together and announced that hereafter, the Commandments would be the rules.

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“Did you have hearings?” a passing North Dakotan asked.

“Well, no,” Moses responded.

“Nothing can be ‘the rules’ without hearings,” the North Dakotan declared.

With public hearings ingrained in our political culture, it should have been no surprise that we are already holding hearings to decide what will be done in 2017 with the billions of dollars of oil money in the Legacy Fund. Meetings this month have been held in the North Dakota communities of Watford City, Grand Forks, Lisbon and Velva.

The Legacy Fund was created by a constitutional amendment proposed by the Legislature to lock up 30 percent of oil revenue until 2017, with the stipulation that it take a two-thirds vote of both houses to spend any of the principal and then it could spend no more than 15 percent of the fund in any one biennium.

The Legislature proposed that the Legacy Fund be a part of the constitution because it didn’t trust the Legislature.

Some press reports on the four meetings suggest that the meetings’ outcome will be a white paper that will follow the suggestions offered by those who attended the meetings. A word of caution may be advisable.

First of all, we need to be careful if we assume that the opinions of those in attendance are representative of the state as a whole. North Dakota policymakers often fall into this false reading of public opinion.

In fact, legislators do it all of the time. When debating bills, legislators frequently will rise to report that they have been back home, and the people of their districts have expressed the district’s opinion on the issues.

It is interesting that the folks back in the district always tell the legislator what he or she wants to hear. That’s because Republicans go home and talk to Republicans, Democrats talk to Democrats, and independents get left out of the loop. It is all anecdotal and unrepresentative.

Experience tells us that the purpose of public hearings is not to get a reliable measurement of public opinion. As suggested to Moses, the purpose of public hearings is to validate the process and to defuse criticism.

If questioned about public input — something that is critical in North Dakota’s egalitarian culture — the sponsors can always say, “We held public hearings.” That is supposed to shut up any critics or contrarians.

The four meetings, sponsored by the nonprofit and nonpartisan Great Plains Institute, provided a great opportunity for interested citizens to sound off. I have found that the public has a lot of good ideas.

But any conclusions require validation through a scientific sampling of public opinion across the state to capture the opinions of all of those folks who were unable to attend the meetings. Some of the major population centers were left out of the circuit.

We already make too many policy decisions on the basis of anecdotal information. Partisan policymakers like it that way so they can continue to say that they have talked to the people, and the people want to buy what they are selling.

With an estimated $7 billion at stake, it seems that expenditure plans for the Legacy Fund should be based on reliable information. Public meetings are good icebreakers to launch discussion, but only scientific sampling can validate conclusions.

Omdahl, a retired professor of political science at UND, is a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota.

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