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Mike Jacobs: Birthday wishes for North Dakotans

A view of the Badlands in the south unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park near Medora Saturday, May 20, 2017. Ellie Potter/The Dickinson Press

Thursday is Statehood Day in North Dakota. President Benjamin Harrison signed the enabling act 128 years ago on Nov. 2.

What resolutions should North Dakotans make for the state's 129th year?

One suggestion is that we should like each other a little more. Another is that we should give ourselves permission to enjoy our wealth. We've allowed political leaders to convince us that North Dakota is broke, but that is a political outlook, not an economic one. North Dakota has a great deal of money, much of it frozen in trust funds that are difficult to tap. That financial

strategy makes sense, but only up to a point.

Revenue from oil development was used to build the trust funds. At the same time, that revenue became a justification to cut income and property taxes. That's also an attractive strategy, up to a point.

The property tax was justly reviled, especially as a basis for funding public schools. Ability to pay varied widely across the state, meaning that some school districts had less local revenue per student than other districts. Valuations — the basis on which taxes were paid — varied, too, depending as it did on local assessors, who are human. Plus, the property tax was hard to collect.

On the other hand, the income tax was easily collected and since it was based on a percentage of income, it fell essentially equally on all taxpayers. Even before the cuts, the state's income tax rate was among the lowest of states that imposed an income tax.

The problem in both these cases — building the trust funds and cutting taxes — is that the state became too dependent on only one revenue source, the sales tax. As oil activity diminished, so did tax revenue. The Legislature did nothing to build revenue. Instead, it embraced the shortfall as a way to strangle programs The last legislative session cut millions of dollars from higher education, for example. Perhaps lawmakers were recoiling from their action in the previous

session, when North Dakota leapt into the lead among states in support of colleges and universities. That leap might have become a foundation for building a stronger, bolder and more innovative system of higher education. Instead it became an excuse to gut programs at every campus in the state.

Higher education was not alone, although it was the biggest victim.

Programs for people with addictions got a lot of attention but not enough money to address the problem fully. Funding for highways was cut; rest areas and rural maintenance facilities were closed. One legislator suggested cutting prize money for state fair exhibitors in order to share the state's poverty with young people.

All of this happened in a state where personal and corporate incomes have risen and in a state with several billion dollars in reserves.

That state is North Dakota.

As for liking one another, the last year brought a number of unpleasant incidents that should have shamed us all. Some of these involved lawmakers, who refused to guarantee equal rights to gay people and considered a bill that would have punished tribal governments (by establishing state-owned casinos, for example) in apparent retaliation for a protest against an oil pipeline. Other acts of hostility toward minorities involved private citizens; for the most part, these have been covered well enough and needn't be listed here.

What's not so well known is the level of anxiety that minorities and new immigrants feel in the state. This reflects the national mood, of course, but that is not an excuse — especially not for the state government.

Yet a curious incident occurred last week on the UND campus. Mark Trahant, a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe and one of the nation's preeminent native journalists, said he'd been denied permission to pursue a series of lectures about coverage of the pipeline protests in both mainstream and social media. The reason, he said, was fear that legislators might retaliate against the university. Trahant felt strongly enough that he said he'd leave the university. A day later — after an online firestorm that embarrassed the university and the state — Trahant said he'd reconsider and that the proposed lectures might yet be held.

All of this suggests that intimidation is real and feeling remain raw.

Note: Last week's column made reference to the retirement of the director of UND's Center for Innovation and its potential consolidation with the College of Business. In response, UND's acting vice president for university relations pointed out that UND's academic programs in entrepreneurship have always been part of the College of Business and Public Administration, and that the entrepreneurship chair was a faculty member in the college.

Mike Jacobs is a retired editor and publisher of the Herald. Email him at mjacobs@gfherald.com.

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