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Accountability at issue

BISMARCK - Taxpayers should see what their money is paying for when public funds are pumped into economic development projects, Gov. John Hoeven and a Republican legislator said Wednesday.


BISMARCK - Taxpayers should see what their money is paying for when public funds are pumped into economic development projects, Gov. John Hoeven and a Republican legislator said Wednesday.

Hoeven and Rep. George Keiser, R-Bismarck, are working on a bill for the 2005 legislative session that would require reports on numbers of jobs state and local economic development programs have created and wages paid in those jobs. It would also require some companies to pay back public money -known as "clawbacks"- if they don't meet job and wage goals.

Hoeven promised such an effort in January during his State of the State speech.

"It's about good stewardship of the taxpayer dollars," Hoeven said. "We want to show the bang for the buck, if you will, that the taxpayer is getting out of economic development.

Democratic legislators who sponsored similar bills in the 2001 and 2003 sessions - only to watch them defeated along party lines - said they wondered why it took so long for Republicans to support the concept.


Hoeven was silent on the bills in the last two sessions, and his Economic Development and Finance Department opposed the 2001 bill, said Rep. Lonny Winrich, D-Grand Forks, who sponsored such bills in the last two sessions.

"Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," Winrich said. "It's always kind of interesting when people decide you've been right all these years."

Keiser, chairman of the House Industry, Business and Labor Committee, said in 2003 that the Democrats' bills were unnecessary because existing reporting methods were sufficient. He said Wednesday that the Democrats' bills were flawed by partisan language and that legislators did not have enough time to work on them during the four-month session.

He said the local economic development officials told him the previous bills were unworkable.

That's not a problem with the planned bill Hoeven and Keiser are working on, said Gene Veeder of Watford City. Veeder is president of the Economic Development Association of North Dakota.

"We support this and we're happy to work with the state," he said while taking part in Hoeven's announcement.

Keiser said House and Senate leaders have been committed since the last session to looking at ways to bring measures of accountability to economic development efforts.

But the House majority leader, Rep. Rick Berg, R-Fargo, and Senate majority leader, Sen. Bob Stenehjem, R-Bismarck, stopped short of endorsing the proposed bill Wednesday, saying they want to examine the specifics.


Keiser said his bill is not yet ready, but will be pre-filed this fall. Until then, state law allows Keiser to keep drafts confidential. He said he would meet with local economic development leaders to find out if the bill draft is deemed workable.

The Keiser-Hoeven bill applies to cities and counties as well as state programs, they said. They'll have to keep records of business subsidies and make them available in a public annual report. The report will have to show:

- Names of businesses receiving business subsidies that year

- Number of new jobs expected to be created by those businesses

- Total dollar value of all business subsidies provided by the political subdivision that year, and

- Average compensation expected from new jobs being created as a result of the subsidies.

Hoeven's opponent, former state Sen. Joe Satrom, called the governor's announcement an insult to the Democratic-NPL legislators who have tried to pass accountability laws and said it represents a reversal of Hoeven's previous position.

Satrom said he has been proposing accountability measures during his year-long campaign.


"He opposed this a year ago when it was being discussed in the session and now he decides to offer it up before the election as if it were his idea?" Satrom asked. "How naive does he think people are in this state?"

He also said it's another example of Hoeven following his lead on issue positions.

The comments brought a rebuke from Hoeven's campaign director, Cory Fong.

"For Joe Satrom to talk about making this political, he's the one making it political." Fong, too, said the Democrats' previous bills were "only partisan bills and made no attempt to build consensus on this issue."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Janell Cole at (701) 224-0830

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