Agricultural prices were already poor. Then the pandemic shook every corner of the state’s economy. Finally, the commodity roller coaster took another sudden drop as oil prices crashed. And across the state, infrastructure projects that could ease economic uncertainty were placed on hold.
Special sessions of the North Dakota legislature are rare for a reason. But the unprecedented times we’re living in and the economic uncertainty we’re all feeling, demand that legislators assert our role representing our constituents and overseeing the state budget.
We’re calling for a special session because, as it sits now, only six people get to decide how the state spends $1.25 billion in federal money intended for all North Dakotans. Fourteen districts that represent roughly 203,000 North Dakotans are left entirely out of the conversation. But there’s much more the legislature needs to do to address the pandemic economy. This is why we introduced a $1 billion bond package to invest in infrastructure statewide.
The bond package would put North Dakotans to work, fulfill promises made to our communities, and address the constant boom and bust enabled by leaders who sit and wait. Along with ensuring local governments would receive the $230 million in Prairie Dog funding they were expecting, the bill would provide $770 million to counties, cities, townships, and Tribal Nations for much-needed infrastructure improvements.
Interest rates are incredibly low, and making this investment now would provide long term, tangible benefits and economic activity in every community. Construction would mean good- paying jobs and greater stability to our economy. Doing it properly would help avoid cuts to critical programs like education, services for people with disabilities, and mental health treatment that help many North Dakotans deal with the stress of living through a pandemic.
Before the Prairie Dog bill passed, we were already seriously behind on road maintenance, according to the Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute. The bill was a positive, but inadequate, step to meet the need. Further delay creates a backlog we may never be able to overcome, and inflation will increase costs. It leaves counties, townships, and cities in dire need.
Extremely wet weather last fall led to terrible road conditions across the state. Roads are washed out or flooded and frost boils have made others impassable. In some regions, farmers can’t get to their fields to harvest last year’s crop or plant a new one. Local subdivisions have had no choice but to spend down their budgets trying to make roads safe. By law, they don’t have local control to increase their spending, and now they’re told they can’t plan on Prairie Dog money for next year’s budget.
Making them wait would mean flooding the construction market in the future, at the same time as neighboring states. We would be competing for work crews, and spending more money for the same service than we would by planning ahead now. This cheats taxpayers. Contractors, who would then need to gear up quickly to meet demand, will have to cut again when the next bust comes. That’s not sustainable.
Our infrastructure plan is one proposal of many that could come up at a special session. There are workers throughout the state speaking up about safety concerns as we wait for a possible second covid-19 wave. Others are asking for support through childcare or paid family leave programs, so they can both work and take care of their families as the economy and public health crisis evolve.
Only with full legislative input can we hear the ideas, concerns, and questions from people in varying situations who live in every part of the state.
Unfortunately, the message sent this week by the small group controlling $1.25 billion in federal money intended for all North Dakotans, is they don’t want to hear it. That stimulus equals roughly one quarter of our entire general fund appropriation. That amount of spending would normally require months of debate from legislators representing every community. Instead, the administration would rather create new programs unchecked while planning cuts to those that already exist.
It’s time for our representatives to set priorities that balance the current crisis and our long term needs. A real Smart North Dakota Restart means input from all North Dakotans, and a special session makes that possible.
Tim Mathern, of Fargo, is in the North Dakota Senate and Pam Anderson, of Bismarck, and Marvin Nelson, of Rolla, both serve in the state House of Representatives. All three are Democrats.