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MATTERS AT HAND: N.D. should be grateful for earmarked funding

Forbes Magazine has labeled North Dakota the fifth ?piggiest? state, based on federal spending per capita. This is no surprise. In fact, it's the result of deliberate choices North Dakotans have made.

Forbes Magazine has labeled North Dakota the fifth "piggiest" state, based on federal spending per capita. This is no surprise. In fact, it's the result of deliberate choices North Dakotans have made.

Although North Dakota politics can be pretty subtle in the particulars, in general, the state is pretty easy to understand. North Dakotans want to get as much as possible from Washington while giving as little as possible to Bismarck.

This explains why North Dakota has one of the few entirely Democratic congressional delegations, while it gave George Bush the nation's second-highest majority.

But Democrats are not alone in seeking federal spending. Gov. John Hoeven often has asked for disaster assistance, and he's used his influence with the GOP administration to win federal grants. So, pork-barreling is a joint strategy.

This strategy has been pretty successful. Forbes points out that the feds spent an average of $123 for every North Dakotan in 2006. Only Alaska, Hawaii, West Virginia and Mississippi ranked higher.

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(The state's rank may be one step higher; Forbes said Mississippians get $110 per capita but still ranked the state "piggier" than North Dakota.)

At the same time, the burden on state taxpayers is among the nation's lowest. Income tax is especially low compared with other states.

Property taxes are high - but those are levied locally. Even though state policy influences how high these taxes go, lawmakers so far have been able to avoid responsibility for them.

Low state taxes don't stop North Dakotans from asking for even lower taxes, of course. Petitions cutting the income tax rate in half are now in circulation, and North Dakotans will likely vote on that plan next year.

As successful as North Dakotans have been in keeping state taxes down, so much more successful have we been in attracting federal spending. This isn't new. North Dakota has long relied on federal largesse, and securing it has long been the key to political success for federal offices, so much so that ideology and party affiliation have been pretty much wrung out of campaigns for federal office.

An end to federal generosity might mean a significant change in North Dakota politics. If members of Congress couldn't bring home the bacon, North Dakotans might begin judging them differently.

As it happens, there is a threat to federal pork. The new Democratic majority in Congress wants to end congressional earmarks. An earmark is a provision that mandates spending for a specific project.

Examples of these are plentiful in North Dakota, from research laboratories in Fargo and Grand Forks to a cowboy museum in the Badlands.

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The current delegation is modest about this. There are no projects named for any of them. This wasn't always so. U.S. Sen. Quentin Burdick liked to have his name on the projects he secured. There are highways, hockey arenas, community centers and at least one auditorium named for him.

Milton Young, Burdick's contemporary in the Senate, sought programs rather than buildings. He was instrumental in shaping farm legislation and securing the state's two U.S. Air Force bases. He also won money to build power plants and reservoirs. One of each of these is named for him.

Even Mark Andrews, who replaced Young in the Senate, has an airport named for him - the one just west of Grand Forks. Andrews lost his seat in the Senate after a single term, at least partly because North Dakotans believed he hadn't brought enough to North Dakota.

What should North Dakotans make of all this?

A better state. That's the evident truth of it.

Anyone who's listened to a youth orchestra in Burdick Auditorium at the International Peace Garden must appreciate the value of that acoustic masterwork.

Here in Grand Forks, congressional earmarks have paid for research into alternative energy sources and human diets. North Dakota State University in Fargo has gotten funds through earmarks, too. They're an important reason for the growth of both institutions - and for their contributions to the state's economy and quality of life.

North Dakotans have no reason to be embarrassed about earmarks. Instead, we ought to be grateful. And hopeful that they'll continue.

Related Topics: MIKE JACOBS
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