North Dakota prides itself on its representative government. It’s often said that North Dakota has more elected officials per capita than any other state.
But when important budgetary matters arise in years when the Legislature isn’t in session, all that talk of representative government goes flying out the window.
Then the interests of taxpayers are decided by two small groups, the six-member Emergency Commission and the 43-member Budget Section Committee of the Legislature, a sort of mini legislative assembly.
So fewer than 50 politicians — only two of whom are elected statewide — have in recent weeks decided how more than $1 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds will be spent.
They acted with little or no meaningful input from the taxpayers who are affected by the consequential decisions.
And large segments of North Dakota weren’t at the table when these decisions were summarily made. Fourteen of 47 legislative districts are unrepresented in the Budget Section.
Most recently, the Emergency Commission last week voted unanimously on a plan to spend $406 million in federal relief to help the state deal with the coronavirus.
Last month, the Emergency Commission approved spending plans for $524 million in federal money, including $33.1 million to plug orphaned oil wells, a program state officials will keep several hundred experienced oil workers employed for several months.
That’s a very generous handout for an industry, even one as important to the state as the petroleum industry. It might be justified, but there was no public discussion and debate about doling out the money.
As a result, decisions like those will fuel cynicism and distrust in a state government already seen as beholden to oil interests.
This is not, it should be clear, an illustration of good government at work. It looks more like the good old boy’s network that Gov. Doug Burgum campaigned against.
Defenders will argue that the Emergency Commission and Budget Section are efficient. So are dictatorships.
A special session would help the Legislature prepare for next year’s session, which will confront unprecedented challenges brought by the coronavirus pandemic. Programs at risk will include funds from “Operation Prairie Dog,” an infrastructure initiative that the city of Fargo plans to use to help offset certain special assessments.
In fact, Democratic legislators called for a special session to address the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and the collapse in oil prices. Lawmakers saved four days, so they could have gone back into session without being convened by the governor.
But GOP legislative leaders shot the idea down, dismissing it as unnecessary. Revenues were running ahead of forecast before the pandemic struck, and should allow state government to keep going to the end of the budget cycle.
That argument misses the point, which is the need for a more inclusive and transparent process.