Forum Editorial: Lawmakers should use special session to make significant investments
North Dakota's financial reserves are more than healthy. Now is the time to make strategic, economy-spurring investments in workforce development, economic development and infrastructure.
The special session of the North Dakota Legislature presents state leaders with an opportunity to make strategic investments in the state’s future.
State coffers are brimming as we slowly emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, making this a perfect time to invest in workforce, economic development and infrastructure initiatives.
North Dakota’s “rainy day fund,” the budget stabilization fund, is flush with $749 million, the maximum allowed by law, and went untouched during the pandemic, thanks to generous federal relief.
A strategic investment fund is on track toward a balance of $549 million and could end up much higher. The state finished the last biennium with a balance of $1.12 billion — the second highest on record, behind only the peak of the oil boom.
That’s $412 million above what the Legislature budgeted, and state government is projected to end the current biennium with a $540 million general fund balance.
North Dakota, in short, is loaded. Not only that, the state is humming along, with strong population gains and high birth rates that bode well for the state’s future workforce.
The current workforce, however, poses the single greatest barrier to economic growth. Officially, North Dakota has 18,300 job openings, but the real number likely is closer to 30,000.
To address those pressing workforce challenges, Gov. Doug Burgum proposes spending $80 million to build another five career academies — a great deal, considering private firms have pledged to provide $70 million in matching funds.
The governor also proposes spending $25 million for a Bismarck State College Polytechnic Workforce Development Center. Early childhood tuition waivers and child care grants will help relieve significant barriers for working parents, helping to expand the workforce.
North Dakota’s geology has ability to store 50 years’ worth of energy-related carbon emissions, but investment will be required to enable the state to lead the nation in carbon capture and storage.
Lawmakers responded during the regular session earlier this year by investing $275 million in the new clean and sustainable energy program, which has drawn applications for 2½ times the money in the fund. Burgum proposes adding another $25 million.
The governor also is pushing to make $590 million in badly needed infrastructure investments, urging $355 million for roads and bridges, $105 million for critical water projects and $33 million for state parks improvements.
Critically, Burgum advocates developing a pipeline system to carry natural gas from the Oil Patch to eastern North Dakota, a project that would help boost industrial development and, under one scenario, generate $56 million in tax revenues, per month.
North Dakota has been on a roll lately. The state’s population increased 16% over the past decade. In recent months, announcement have been made for two big soybean crushing plants, one near Jamestown and another at Casselton, and a mammoth wet corn milling plant in Grand Forks.
A $2.8 billion gas-to-liquids plant is planned near Williston, one of the $25 billion in potential projects under development in North Dakota.
To keep this streak going, North Dakota must invest in its workforce and infrastructure. Lawmakers should follow Burgum’s lead during the rare opportunity presented by the special session and make significant investments in the state’s economic future.
Given North Dakota’s fantastically health budget surpluses, leaders should make 2021 a year that North Dakota took bold steps toward an even brighter future.