MATTERS AT HAND: A great year gives way to a challenge

Last week's news that there are more North Dakotans now than in any other census since 1930 -- almost a record number -- was only the exclamation point at the end of a remarkable year.

Last week's news that there are more North Dakotans now than in any other census since 1930 -- almost a record number -- was only the exclamation point at the end of a remarkable year.

We North Dakotans will remember 2010 as a very good year, perhaps the best year yet.

The weather was good. So were the crops. Harvest went well. Yields were good. Prices were high. Bins are full, and checks are large.

Even in drought-prone parts of the state, nature was generous. Pastures were lush and the hay crop huge.

Success on the farm has reached the state's cities, where car dealers have sold more pickups than any of them can remember.


What's more, the Canadian dollar is near par, and cash registers are ringing.

Then, there's oil.

Revenue from oil is pouring into pockets as engineers, contractors and job seekers reach into oil country.

All of this has given North Dakota the fastest growth in per capita income among the 50 states.

And money has poured into the state treasury.

Yes, it was a very good year -- but it's going to take effort to see that 2011 is as good.

As the New Year begins, North Dakota seems to be in a sour mood.

This was reflected in the election, and the consequences will be felt in 2011.


Perhaps the most important of these is the end to congressional earmarks. North Dakota has prospered through earmarking. This is especially true of the higher education system, and especially of its research enterprises.

It's easy enough to argue that all states will be affected equally, but that's not true. North Dakota has long been among the biggest beneficiaries of earmarks, and it's always been among the states least rewarded by the grant-making of government agencies.

Don't expect the state to take up the slack.

To begin with, North Dakota isn't quite as rich as the treasury surplus suggests. Quite a lot of oil revenue is shut away in various trust funds, and some is needed to fund initiatives undertaken last legislative session, including the one that lowered our property taxes. That shifted funding for public schools to the state, creating a continuing obligation that scares legislators.

But there's still a lot of money around, enough for an array of initiatives.

Research funding isn't likely to be among them, however. Historically, the Legislature has provided little money for research, although Gov. John Hoeven tried to change that, with his Centers of Excellence program.

But there is that sour mood.

A local business leader returned from a statewide meeting last week with a stark assessment. Away from the university cities, he said, there's deep animosity toward the higher education system.


This isn't new, of course, but it is puzzling.

It's also dangerous.

By almost any measure, North Dakota's higher education system is doing well. North Dakota schools have reached record enrollments. Growing numbers of students from other states are coming here for college educations. Quite a few stay. More will stay as the economy grows and creates new jobs.

The economy will grow as oil is developed and new enterprises are established.

The critical need remains to diversify the economy, and the higher education system is the engine to make that happen.

Choking the higher education system could choke growth.

Yet, that is what some lawmakers seem set on doing.

Partly, this is a reaction to the late unpleasantness at North Dakota State University. This has damaged the credibility of the Board of Higher Education and spilled onto the system at large.


Now, it threatens the greatest opportunity the state has ever had to harness higher education and the economy and to build not just a richer but a better state.

Much of 2010's success was beyond our making.

We didn't put the oil in the ground, and we didn't direct the weather.

But government policy, and especially government investments, help build on these resources.

Making this argument is going to take a lot of effort. There will be frustration and disappointment.

But the argument must be made, or 2011 will be remembered as the year that North Dakota failed to build on what probably has been the best year of its history.

Mikc Jacobs is editor and publisher of the Herald.

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