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Port: NDSU researchers paint a painfully gloomy forecast for North Dakota's economy, showing us why the state's economy had to re-open

Bella LeTexier, an Olive Garden employee, stands by 13th Avenue holding up a sign stating that the lobby of the restaurant has been reopened on Friday, May 1, in Fargo. Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum
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MINOT, N.D. — The researchers at North Dakota State University's Center for the Study of Public Choice and Private Enterprise have released a forecast for North Dakota's economy.

It's not news to you readers that a "flock of black swans" (to swipe a term Gov. Doug Burgum has been using) has descended on the state's economy. It's the coronavirus, yes, but it's also tanking oil prices that have all but stilled oil and gas development.

Also, government-created imbalances in the energy markets have threatened the long-stable coal industry. Coal Creek Station, the largest coal-fired power plant in North Dakota, is at risk of closing , which would mean the loss of thousands of jobs.

Plus, there are all the usual challenges our state faces from flooding and the ups-and-downs of the agriculture markets.

The impact of all these "black swans" is what the NDSU researchers set out to measure. What they've found isn't good.


You can read their full report below, but this is the executive summary, predicting plunging wages, a shrinking workforce, spiking unemployment, and a contracting economy.

That all adds up to a lot of hurting people, and our state government's ability to help is going to be severely curtailed if this conclusion from the report proves accurate: "The model predicts North Dakota’s total tax collections may decrease by more than 50 percent."



This is not intended to be a chiseled-in-stone prediction for what will come. "A forecast model does not generate perfect predictions of the future, nor should the specific values in the forecast be direct cause for decision- making," the authors of this research write. "Forecasting provides information about what is possible and can help establish expectations."

Part of the challenge of this sort of endeavor is that the only real data we have to predict the future is the past.

How useful is the past when you're dealing with an unprecedented situation?


Still, it's no surprise to anyone that a decline in the oil industry, specifically, means a decline in North Dakota's fortunes. Most state policymakers agree that the percentage of state revenues attributable to oil and gas activity is north of 50%.

With prices at the bottom of a plunge, and production dropping off quickly, a hole just got blown in the state's budget, and that's before we even start talking about revenues lost because of all the people losing their jobs and staying at home.

Burgum's decision to allow North Dakota businesses to begin the process of reopening (albeit with on-going restrictions in place) has received a lot of criticism from some who believe it's too much too soon.

This NDSU report, I believe, is the other side of that coin.

There is risk in allowing the state's economy to reopen.

But keeping the economy closed would add to the economic carnage already created.

We are not at risk of businesses being destroyed.

We are not at risk of altering the trajectory of people's lives toward the negative.


The shutdown of our state's economy - necessary as it was, I believe - has already done those things.

They're not risks; they're realities.

That cost had to be balanced with the public health cost of reopening.

Burgum is, so far, striking the right balance for North Dakota.

Here's the full report:

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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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