Port: Fiscal conservatism begins with honest accounting
A lot of you probably don't know who Rep. Jeff Delzer is, but he's on the shortlist of North Dakota's most influential policymakers.
MINOT, N.D. — In his column today, Mike Jacobs writes about some intraparty competition in North Dakota's District 8, where longtime lawmaker Jeff Delzer is seeking re-election to the state House but facing a challenge from two other Republicans.
Each district in North Dakota elects two people to the House, and one to the Senate, every four years. In the House races, the top two vote-getters get the party nomination on the June ballot, and the right to hold the office in November.
A lot of you probably don't know who Delzer is, but he's on the shortlist of North Dakota's most influential policymakers. Currently, he chairs both the House Appropriations Committee and the powerful Budget Section, which oversees the state's finances during the interim between legislative sessions.
Having served in the Legislature for nearly three decades, with most of that time spent on budget matters, few in state government know more about how the sausage gets made.
Yet Dezler's approach to sausage making has made him a lot of enemies.
Jacobs writes: "it’s hard to imagine a legislator more conservative on fiscal issues than Rep. Delzer," but I'm not sure what Delzer does can fairly be called conservatism.
His approach to financial management is flawed even before we get to spending philosophies.
What Delzer does, consistently, is manipulate the way the state's finances are reported to get the outcomes he prefers. This is widely known and talked about in legislative circles by those who both approve and disapprove of it.
Jacobs describes one Delzer tactic in his column.
"Delzer engineered a move to delay recording the earnings of the state’s Legacy Fund by a single day. Accounting for revenues on Aug. 1 rather than July 31 would have made the state’s resources look smaller because the books close at midnight on the last day of July," he writes.
Jacobs also mentions Dezler's efforts to all but exclude Burgum's executive branch budgets from the legislative process.
I can point to another example. North Dakota's lawmakers budget based on revenue forecasts. Which is to say they don't budget money the state has. They budget money the state expects to have.
Delzer is among a group of lawmakers who like revenue forecasts to come in well below reality, and they're willing to manipulate the assumptions made by forecasters to get the outcomes they want. During the heights of the oil boom, nearly a decade ago now, lawmakers were telling me it was OK for state revenue forecasts to come in a billion or so dollars short of what tax revenues were because that meant they'd have less money to spend.
While this allowed state officials to brag, at the time, about significant surpluses, later when the oil revenues dipped, the forecasts ended up being wildly inaccurate in the other direction, incapable of accurately predicting massive revenue shortfalls.
Lawmakers weren't directly in charge of those forecasts, which were under the auspices of the executive branch's Office of Management and Budget, though they still influenced them. And lawmakers were in charge of their own revenue forecast, issued during their 2019 session for the current biennium, which included nonsensical calculations that were clearly manipulations .
Those tempted to defend Delzer might argue that such shenanigans produce fiscally conservative outcomes. If the official accounts show less money, then officially there's less money to spend.
But how fiscally conservative is our leadership if money must be hidden from them to head off inappropriate levels of spending? Our lawmakers are tasked with making budget decisions. Those decisions should be based on accurate information.
Sound policymaking begins with good data. That's as true of budgets as it is anything else.
Delzer represents a sort of old guard in North Dakota politics, and while that in and of itself is not a bad thing, there is a point at which it turns into an arrogant refusal to let newcomers access the process and make decisions.
When that happens, it's time for the old guard to go.
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Listen to his Plain Talk Podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.