Forum Editorial: Stingy on school lunches, scornful of Fargo’s local control, this ND Legislature is odious
Some GOP senators voted to increase meal reimbursements for state employees — including themselves — but against school lunches for poor kids. And legislators gutted Fargo's approval voting.
North Dakota legislative members of the Grand Old Party, which calls itself conservative, have repeatedly shown themselves eager to meddle in affairs best left to individuals or local leaders, and their stewardship of the budget has sometimes used frugality as a mask for callousness.
A prime example — one that also involves hypocrisy or at the very least inconsistency — concerns school lunches. Thirteen Republican members of the Senate voted to increase reimbursements for state employees, which of course include lawmakers, just 10 days after voting to deny state payment of school lunches.
Why the difference? Sen. David Hogue, R-Minot, the Senate majority leader and one of the Legislature’s most thoughtful members, was at a loss to explain his votes. “I don't have a good answer for you as (to) why we do it sometimes and not others.”
Sen. Jerry Klein, R-Fessenden, the assistant majority leader, was less perplexed, and claimed there was no “correlation whatsoever” between the two bills. Ah, but there is a correlation, and we’ll point it out for Sen. Klein: both involve appropriation of taxpayer dollars to pay for meals.
If it’s proper to increase reimbursements for those on the state payroll, why can’t we spend a paltry $6 million to pay for lunch for low-income students? Research shows students perform better when well nourished.
Originally, a bill proposed spending $89.5 million per biennium to cover all 115,000 North Dakota K-12 students’ lunches, as Minnesota has decided to do. Legislators blanched at the price tag, slashing it to $6 million, an amount the House has approved but the Senate has yet to act upon.
Now, the 13 Senate Republicans can redeem themselves by approving school lunches for poor students, showing the consideration they’ve given to state employees — and themselves.
In another ill-considered move, the Legislature ran roughshod over Fargo’s autonomy by gutting its use of its home rule charter to allow approval voting, which voters in 2018 overwhelmingly approved by 64% in 2018.
Before being allowed to vote for more than one candidate in city elections, Fargo was routinely electing commissioners with puny pluralities — meaning they failed to get majority support. Approval voting solves that problem.
In his veto message, Gov. Doug Burgum had it exactly right, calling the legislation an “egregious example of state overreach” that “blatantly infringes on local control.” The veto could face an override vote.
Honestly, why have home rule charter authority — meant to give local governments flexibility to govern as they deem best — if the state is going to cavalierly yank it away? Fargo is among 155 North Dakota cities that have adopted home rule charters, allowed by state law.
Burgum suggested that legislators, who overrode his veto, are inviting a lawsuit. If Fargo has a case, it should go to court to strike down the Legislature’s arrogant and intrusive interference with local control and the clear wishes of voters.
We’ve observed before that legislators aren’t always as good at investing in people as they are in investing in infrastructure. A recent example comes from the Legislature’s slashing of a $2 million “lifeline support” request from Fraser Ltd.’s Stepping Stone Recovery Center in Fargo.
The center provides shelter, meals, showers and “wraparound” service support for youth and young adults in crisis. Many of these homeless kids suffer from mental illness and drug dependency; some turn to prostitution to survive.
Helping them through crisis periods and getting them vital skills is the right thing to do, and can even prevent some from requiring inpatient psychiatric treatment.
House appropriations members, who are considering the request, appear willing to go along with a greatly reduced $300,000 appropriation. At the very least, lawmakers should be willing to support that level; Fraser’s “skinny budget” only includes 12% of state funding.
And greater ongoing funding for Fraser, which services kids and young adults who flock to Fargo from all over the state, should be built into future human services budgets.