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Port: If North Dakota can't spend rental assistance money prudently, then we shouldn't spend it at all

We've been living with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the extraordinary government interventions it has provoked, for two years now. When should the river of deficit-exploding federal money, borrowed from our nation's creditors against the tax dollars our children will pay, dry up?

A “For Rent” sign is shown outside of Bauer Property Management’s Century Apartment complex on 21st Street West in north Dickinson. Rents throughout Dickinson have fallen and once-rare apartment vacancies are becoming more common as a result of the downturn in oil prices and slowdown in oil production in western North Dakota’s Bakken formation. (Abby Kessler / The Dickinson Press)
FILE PHOTO: A “For Rent” sign is shown outside of Bauer Property Management’s Century Apartment complex in north Dickinson.
(Abby Kessler / The Dickinson Press)
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MINOT, N.D. — The State of North Dakota received $352 million in funding through the federal government's Emergency Rental Assistance program.

The money was intended to help renters who had fallen behind during the pandemic, but now the state is set to return about 42% of that funding, or $149 million dollars.

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Why? The state says they can't spend it prudently on the timeline the federal government has laid out.

“I think that makes sense for us,” Jessica Thomasson, executive policy director for family stability and community inclusion at the North Dakota Department of Human Services, told reporter Adam Kurtz . “We are a state with a population that if you're going to spend those dollars effectively, according to program guidelines in the timeframe that's given, that's not realistic.”

That makes sense.

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It can be easy to lose sight of this reality since Congress has been fiscally profligate during the pandemic even in the context of historical federal profligacy, but this isn't free money. These are tax dollars. Worse, they're borrowed tax dollars.

They shouldn't be spent simply because they exist.

It shouldn't surprise you that many -- from house advocates and activists to point-scoring politicians -- disagree.

Case in point, state Rep. Karla Rose Hanson, a Democrat from Fargo:

The editorial board at the Grand Forks Herald also believes the state should spend the money , even if they need to be less discerning about how its spent.

"One fix would be to remove what some housing advocates say are cumbersome steps, and allow potential recipients to simply self-attest their personal need," the paper argues. "The state allows people to self-attest, but only after other methods to document their need have failed."

Call me old-fashioned, but if you don't bother to verify whether the people getting assistance from a government assistance program actually need that assistance, then is it an assistance program? Or just the government giving away other people's money?

The Herald argues that it's more important for this money to be spent in North Dakota. "The point is that before this money is sent back, it’s best to find ways to circulate it through North Dakota’s economy," the paper says.

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But haven't we seen enough of that already? We've been living with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the extraordinary government interventions it has provoked, for two years now.

When should the river of deficit-exploding federal money, borrowed from our nation's creditors against the tax dollars our children will pay, dry up?

And is this spending really helping us?

Our national economy saw an inflation rate of 7% in December , the highest in 40 years, and that's not just a headline. We can all see the reality of it in the higher prices we're paying for everything from utility bills to grocery trips.

It's going to be painful, but at some point things have to get back to normal.

Kudos to the State of North Dakota, and the Burgum administration in particular, for holding the line.

Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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