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Port: Review of North Dakota's investments must be larger than just Russia

The war in Ukraine has precipitated some review of Russia-exposed investments, but to use that as the only impetus for reviewing our investments suggests that we only care about the brutality of regimes like Putin's when it crosses international boundaries and we can't ignore it anymore.

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Ukrainian servicemen ride on tanks toward the front line with Russian forces in the Lugansk region of Ukraine on Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. Ukrainian forces fought off Russian troops in the capital Kyiv on the second day of a conflict that has claimed dozens of lives, as the EU approved sanctions targeting President Vladimir Putin.
Anatolii Stepanov / AFP / TNS
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Minot, N.D. — Yesterday morning, I wrote that North Dakota's tax dollars were invested in financing Vladimir Putin's regime.

Yesterday afternoon, Governor Doug Burgum's administration announced that the State Investment Board, chaired by Lt. Governor Brent Sanford, would be reviewing those investments, not just in the Legacy Fund but across the state's other pension and investment funds as well.

As an exercise in minimization, Burgum's people were quick to highlight that the Russian investments represent small percentages.

According to their press release, "state investments with Russian entity exposure total $8.5 million from the Legacy Fund, $5.1 million from the pension pool and $2.3 million from the insurance pool – a total of $15.9 million, or less than one-tenth of 1% of the $19.3 billion in total assets under management."

It's not just the SIB that will be reviewing investments.

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"The North Dakota Board of University and School Lands (Land Board) also has approximately $28.8 million invested in Russia-based companies, which is equal to less than half of 1% of the board's total investment assets of more than $6 billion," the release also stated.

That board will also be taking some action over these investments.

This is all good news, but these reviews need to be something more than a knee-jerk reaction to Russia's bloody invasion of Ukraine.

Our state leaders need to initiate a more extensive review of our investments to ensure they align with our values.

I'm not talking about some ideological witch hunt on par with the efforts by activists to divest government investments from, say, the fossil fuels industry. I'm talking about ensuring that the way our state invests its dollars are in accord with basic human decency.

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Local leaders shouldn't be on the hook for evaluating the national security implications of a Chinese-owned company building a corn milling plant.

The war in Ukraine has precipitated some review of Russia-exposed investments, but to use that as the only impetus for reviewing our investments suggests that we only care about the brutality of regimes like Putin's when it crosses international boundaries and we can't ignore it anymore.

Beijing's history of repression and human rights abuses is not a new development nor in dispute. The same is true of Putin's rapacity. China has millions of ethnic minorities in concentration camps, and Russia has attempted to meddle in at least two American elections. Both countries are enemies of liberal democracy.

How long should we continue to turn our eyes from these truths? In rebuttal, the financial managers who have made these investments invoke a sort of Nuremberg defense. "We have a fiduciary responsibility to seek a good rate of return," they'll tell us.

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Even at the expense of human dignity, apparently.

I understand that what I'm asking for is complex. Pulling investments from Russia, particularly now, is an easy call, and removing them from China is only somewhat more complicated.

But how about investments in Saudi Arabia, a nation that also has an appalling human rights track record? Or Turkey, where Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's authoritarian regime is bordering on a dictatorship?

Our Legacy Fund has investments in state-owned Saudi oil companies and a bond issued to the Turkish government. Should it?

Our elected leaders need to address these questions head-on. They need to stop cowering behind our hired money managers and investment bureaucrats and develop a transparent policy that sets our basic moral standards for investments.

Such an exercise won't be perfect, and it certainly won't be easy, but it's not something we should shy away from.

Opinion by Rob Port
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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