Port: What fiscal conservatism is not

Actual fiscal conservatives recognize prudent appropriations. The rail inspection program is cheap and provides an insurance policy against rail disruptions that could jeopardize our economy, but it

Photo: Rep. Jeff Delzer (R-Underwood) John Hageman photo
North Dakota Republican Rep. Jeff Delzer chairs a meeting of the House Appropriations Committee at the state Capitol on March 14, 2019. Forum News Service file photo
Forum News Service file photo
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MINOT, N.D. — During the years-long feud between Gov. Doug Burgum and powerful appropriator Rep. Jeff Delzer , many of the latter's supporters have extolled his virtues to me as a fiscal conservative.

"Delzer keeps a tight grip on the money," one lawmaker told me.

That's certainly true. Rep. Dezler's exacting standards for appropriations can be fairly described as zealous.

That's not an entirely bad thing. Many politicians are profligates. We don't have enough political leaders with tight fists.

But while fiscal conservatism often means saying "no" to the unnecessary, it also means promoting efficiency for the necessary.


This is where Delzer and some others in the Legislature fall short.

Here's an example.

Years ago, a series of high-profile and explosive train derailments, including one in Casselton, became a talking point for the enemies of oil and gas development. Pipeline capacity at the time was lagging, and much of our oil was shipped by rail.

The political activists pounced, sensing an opportunity to use fear of derailments to choke off oil shipments. Our state's leaders had to fight off attempts to regulate oil-by-rail shipments out of existence.

Part of the solution has been the expansion of pipeline capacity — the Dakota Access Pipeline, etc. — but another was a state-run rail inspection program backed by Republican Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak .

Previously, the state has no real oversight of rail safety. The feds were in charge, but the feds weren't doing enough.

Rail infrastructure is hugely important to North Dakota's industries.

Energy, yes, but even more so agriculture and manufacturing. Fedorchak wanted to spend what is, in terms of the state's overall budget, a measly amount of money to hire inspectors.


She had to fight some lawmakers, including Delzer and others, who wanted to leave the matter to the feds. Fedorchak won, and since 2019 these rail inspectors have "found more than 10,000 mechanical and track defects and issued 127 violations against significant problems that posed an imminent danger," according to reporting from Adam Willis .

That's a success story, but some don't see it that way.

This program is budgeted for $600,000 over the next two years, but there is no permanent appropriation. Rep. Delzer and others in the Legislature want this prudent program to sunset every two years.

That's poor fiscal management. How much more does the state has to pay inspectors to work for a program that might not be around in two years? How effective can the program be when there's no commitment from the state to operate it?

Actual fiscal conservatives recognize prudent appropriations. The rail inspection program is cheap and provides an insurance policy against rail disruptions that could jeopardize our economy, but it probably costs more than it has to because the supposed "fiscal conservatives" in the Legislature are holding a grudge.

There's nothing fiscally conservative about that.


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Rob Port, founder of, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at .

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 Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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