North Dakota’s Legacy Fund investment portfolio includes millions of dollars of bond holdings that are being put to work building vital infrastructure — in other states.
That’s a natural consequence of pouring money into Wall Street investments, which is a standard practice for governments as it is for individuals and businesses.
But we can be smarter with our money. We should be smarter with our money.
There have been growing calls to put earnings from the $7.3 billion Legacy Fund to work here in North Dakota. If we’re going to invest in roads and bridges, let’s spend that money in North Dakota, where we have lots of needs to improve our highways, bridges and water works.
Gov. Doug Burgum’s 2021-23 budget plan would do just that with his proposed $1.25 billion bonding proposal, to be repaid from a portion of Legacy Fund earnings.
Interest rates are at historic lows, so there’s never been a better time to borrow money for long-term investments that will strengthen the state’s economy and competitiveness by making its roads and bridges and other public works better and safer.
North Dakota is loath to borrow money. Legislators have prided themselves on paying for projects without borrowing. That frugality is commendable, so long as it isn’t carried to extremes.
In fact, North Dakota does sell bonds to borrow money. The state has bonded a modest $2.25 billion, mostly for housing and water projects.
We now face a situation where the state’s budget is strapped from the economic devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic. So the state can’t simply pay cash for major highway projects and public works — including the diversion that will protect Fargo, West Fargo and Horace from severe floods.
The $2.75 billion diversion has an estimated $120 million funding gap and local officials will be asking the state to close that shortfall. Bonding would make that possible.
Burgum’s bonding proposal calls for $700 million for an infrastructure revolving loan program that would provide low-interest loans to local governments for road, bridge and other projects. The low rates would help keep local taxes down.
Another $323 million would go for transportation, bridge and community project grants to enable immediate improvements; $182 million would be dedicated to address deferred maintenance and repairs and $45 million would provide matching grants to expand or open local career academies.
The time is right for a major bonding campaign. Historically low interest rates mean borrowing money is on sale. Construction costs are low now, but likely won’t be if the state waits to pay with cash.
Fortunately, legislators also are working on significant bonding proposals that focus more on grants than loans. The upcoming session presents a rare opportunity to make significant investments in the state’s future.
Leaders shouldn’t squander the chance. Let’s make 2021 a pivotal year that will be looked back upon as a year of bold leadership and foresight.