Port: Mailbag questions about SBA loans, unemployment, the Keystone XL pipeline, and an old science fiction book

mall flowers giveaway
West Acres Mall gave flowers away to the public April 6 because of an overabundance of flowers delivered for Easter after the mall closed on March 20 due to the coronavirus. Rather than have the flowers go to waste they decided to give them away. Chris Flynn / The forum
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MINOT, N.D. -- Welcome to another Friday, and another mailbag column.

How are you all doing out there? These are hard times. Historically hard. This will be a chapter in the history textbooks students use one day (assuming they'll still be using textbooks, which they probably won't).

Remember, if you'd like to get a question or comment in about the stuff I'm writing about (or anything, really), send it to, and I'll take a look. Your questions may be edited for brevity and clarity.

Kim writes: "I have something that affects me personally that I think you may be interested in looking into, regarding the COVID stuff. I'm a sole proprietor and self-employed and have filed for both EIDL assistance and unemployment as directed, because they are making it available to self-employed and gig economy workers for the first time. It's been two weeks and I have yet to hear anything at all about these applications outside of confirmation that they were received (other than, just wait a few more days), and meanwhile, a) Federal funds have been blown through already and b) other unemployment recipients are getting their $600/week backpay. No one can give me a straight answer on who/what/when. We need to know, we're as affected as everyone else."

Kim also sent me a lot of details about what she's gone through. For the EIDL issue, she's called her banker. She's called the Chamber of Commerce. She's called the North Dakota Department of Commerce, the Small Business Development Council in her town and the U.S. Small Business Administration itself.


As for her unemployment benefits, she filed earlier this month, and the clock is ticking. "My claim is acknowledged on the UI Claim website, in my correspondence. I know I need to provide more info within 21 days, but I don't know how to do that because it doesn't say. I was expecting a letter with this info," she told me in an email. "After nine days, I called Jamestown service office yesterday afternoon and was told that they are waiting on instructions from the federal government and will put the programming in as soon as that comes in."

Recently Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., was appointed by President Donald Trump to his Opening Up America Again task force. Hoeven has also been coordinating relief efforts between federal agencies and the state since this crisis began. I thought his office might be the right place to go for some answers for Kim.

Unfortunately, their advice was just to keep calling. "In regards to your reader's specific concerns, the Small Business Administration is directly administering the Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL). For North Dakotans with questions about the EIDL Program, we would encourage them to contact the SBA regional office in Fargo, at 701-239-5131," Hoeven spokeswoman Kami Capener told me. "The unemployment insurance program continues to be administered by Job Service ND, and we encourage North Dakotans with questions about Unemployment Benefits to contact Job Service ND at one of their 9 locations throughout the state, which can be found at ."

That's . . . not much help, but who do we blame for not being prepared? Here in North Dakota, a number of people equivalent to roughly 13 percent of our entire employed workforce have filed for reinsurance. On a typical day, we see about 80 unemployment filings statewide, but now we're seeing thousands a day.

People like Kim are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They're trying to access the help the government has put on offer, but the federal programs are out of money (with a political donnybrook forming over refunding them), and the state government can't seem to keep up with its deadlines.

My advice, as unsatisfying as it is, would be to keep trying. I suspect officials are going to be pretty forgiving about deadlines right now, and hopefully, more funding will come in for those who need it.

In the meantime, if you're finding yourself overwhelmed with this stuff emotionally, there's help for that too. Please use it .

M. writes: "I just read your recent article about (federal Judge Brian) Morris. What do you think the chances are of a quick overruling of this order by an appeals court? I believe in June of last year the 9th Circuit did overrule a Morris decision on this case. Would the same three-judge panel be looking at this issue or would it be a different group of judges?"


The reader is asking about the interminable legal squabbling over the Keystone XL pipeline. I noted in a column earlier this week that the Montana-based Judge Morris had, responding to lawsuits filed by environmental activists, effectively canceled the Trump administration's approval of the project.

A previous ruling Morris issued related to the pipeline was overturned by the 9th Circuit , but that was related to a permit issued by the State Department. This most recent ruling from Morris overturned a different, more unusual permit directly from President Trump which had replaced the State Department permit.

Trump's newer permit rendered the legal wrangling over the older permit moot.

Will Morris be overturned again? Maybe. These legal proceedings are very unpredictable, which is the point I made in my original column. We need a rigorous but predictable regulatory process for crucial infrastructure like pipelines. We don't have that now, and the endless lawsuits in the courts are a big reason why.

The 9th Circuit would be where Morris' most recent ruling would be appealed too. As to whether or not it will be quick, that previously overturned ruling was made in November 2018 and reversed in June 2019, so that's probably a reasonable timeline for a new appeal.

Nathan asks: "What's with that weird flag on your social media profiles?"

That's a flag indicating that I'm a huge nerd.

More specifically, it's from a Robert Heinlein novel called The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. It's a great (if a bit dated) book that helped shape the politics of a young Rob Port. The letters on the flag, TANSTAAFL, stand for "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch." You've probably heard that saying before. It originated with Heinlein's book.


I like that saying. It's universally true and essential to remember in public policy. Nothing is free. Whatever we choose, there's always a cost.

To comment on this article, visit

Rob Port, founder of, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at .

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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