Lining Up At The Federal Trough

In the 1970’s, when I was a reporter for The Dickinson Press, the coal boom was happening in western North Dakota, and there was a lot of power plant construction getting underway. Federal government largesse back then wasn’t what it has become today, but there were some federal funds flowing to North Dakota, mostly from the Rural Electrification Administration (now the Rural Utilities Service), to help build power lines and to help with other infrastructure needs.

Our congressional delegation back then was Senators Milton Young and Quentin Burdick and Representative Mark Andrews. Whenever the REA approved a loan or a grant to a North Dakota REC, they would give the congressional delegation the privilege of announcing it. So, from time to time, The Press newsroom would get a phone call from Washington announcing the funding.

The way it worked was, (this was the day long before e-mail) the staffer in the Washington office would dictate a news release over the phone to whoever answered the phone, (usually me).  So I would listen and type as the caller dictated the news release. Something like “Senator Quentin Burdick announced today the Rural Electrification Administration has approved a $270,000 grant to Slope electric Cooperative of New England for upgrading a transmission line . . . etc .” When they were done reading and I was done typing, we’d do a bit of small talk (“Cold back there in North Dakota? 80 degrees here.”) and that was that. I had my story for the next morning’s paper.

But then what would happen is, not too long after that, a second Congressional office call would come, and then a third, each calling to give me the same press release, with a different name in the first paragraph. Well, that got old, so I decided to have some fun with these guys, and I adopted a policy: Whoever called first got their name in the story. The other two got left out. So when the first staffer called me, I took the dictated press release, but then when a second staff person called, I told them “Sorry, but Senator Burdick already called, so Congressman Andrews missed out.”

After that I would sit at my desk and almost giggle at the thought of these three staff persons running down the halls of the United States Capitol to get to their typewriters and hammer out a press release, and then frantically dialing the long distance operator to place a call to this smart-ass reporter back in Dickinson, to get their boss’s name in the paper the next day. But the best thing about my policy was that the press releases got much shorter, usually just two or three short paragraphs, omitting some long-winded quote from Mark Andrews about how valuable our REC’s were to the state and the country and the whole free world. Made my job a lot easier.

I‘ve been thinking about those days a bit lately as I see this spate of press releases in the paper, almost on a daily basis at this time of the year, as the federal government’s fiscal year closes, announcing the incredible number of federal dollars flowing into our state. Now federal dollars flowing into North Dakota is not news. Forever, we have led the nation or been near the top of the list of states who receive more federal dollars than they send in with their 1040s. That’s generally because of the farm bill, which for many years has kept our agriculture industry afloat.

But it seems to be different this year. It seems to me that a great deal of money is flowing in to help us deal with problems associated with growing pains—read: an oil boom. Here are a few recent examples from newspaper stories I’ve read lately.

  • $1.4 million to the state and the Three Affiliated Tribes to help curb violence against women in the Bakken region
  • $5 million to North Dakota and the other states the Bakken oil trains pass through to help train first responders
  • $2.7 million to North Dakota Job Service for upgrades to our unemployment insurance program (Huh? In a state with the nation’s lowest unemployment rate, less than 2%?)
  • $9.9 million to Bismarck State College for job training (You can probably guess what kind of jobs they are going to be training for.)
  • $191,000 to the Department of Transportation for training in how to handle hazardous materials, such as the train wreck near Casselton
  • $4.9 million to the Bismarck Airport for upgrades (made necessary by increased air traffic, no doubt)
  • $210,000 to the ND Public Service Commission for pipeline safety programs
  • $880,000 to the Dickinson Airport
  • $620,000 to the state and the Abused Adult Resource Center in Bismarck to help victims of sexual assault
  • $480,000 to the ND Attorney General for narcotics enforcement

There are a lot more funds plowing into the state for other programs, such as a $6.6 million Health and Human Services grant ($5.4 million to the state, $1.2 million to tribes and social service agencies) to help elderly and people with developmental disabilities transition from institutions to communities. The state’s Department of Health will get over $600,000 for chronic disease prevention programs, a $3.1 million grant to the Agriculture Commissioner to help him promote specialty crops, $1.4 million to the State Health Department to upgrade immunization records, and $6.2 million to Fargo for property buyouts and new sewer construction for flood protection. The list goes on and on. Just in the stories I read in the Tribune since August 1, the total is more than $50 million.

So let me get this straight. A government that is flat-ass broke and running trillion dollar deficits is sending $50 million to a state that is running up massive budget surpluses—by some accounts we have more than $6 billion in the bank and it is growing by billions a year. WTF?

We’re collecting almost $5 billion a year in oil taxes from an industry creating huge social and infrastructure problems, but apparently our state officials have no shame. They stick that money in the bank and take the funny money rolling in from Washington.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m a Democrat and a Liberal, and I think government ought to be here to help us do things we can’t do for ourselves. But I also believe we ought to pay our own way when we can. And in North Dakota, we certainly can. I’m almost embarrassed by some of those grants, especially things like hazmat training, pipeline safety and job training. C’mon. We created those problems. We need to clean up our own mess. We can certainly afford it. According to the state’s Office of Management and Budget, the state’s general fund surplus for the 2013-2015 biennium is expected to be more than $600 million by the time the biennium ends next June.

And there are other problems. Bismarck and Mandan residents just voted to raise their sales taxes to pay for a new jail. The uncontrolled oil boom, which state officials could have helped to control, has caused huge increases in both crime and convictions, and now we are paying for it while the state sits on billions. And I’m not the only one complaining.

My old friend Ron Anderson, a former pretty-conservative Legislator and now a McKenzie County Commissioner, said in the paper the other day he’d “be a rich man if he had a dollar for every person who’s asked him why Bismarck (state government) isn’t building the new Watford City hospital, instead of the board putting together a combination of federal and state loans, and a hefty infusion of a new city sales tax and donated money.”

The huge population explosion in McKenzie County and the huge increase in dangerous jobs and truck traffic have necessitated a new hospital. It’s a $60 million project. The federal government is lending the community $39 million. The city and some generous donors are putting up the other $21 million.

Anderson praised Watford City for passing a bond issue to build its own school and a new sales tax to help finance the hospital and a new events center. “There’s not many who could do that. You people have been tremendous,” he said. “We’ve broken so much ground, there’s not much left.”

            But “They (the state) should be building this. We contribute (billions) to the state, but they’re not,” Anderson said.

All over western North Dakota, the story is the same. Cities are ponying up for new schools, clinics, hospitals, jails, policemen, firemen, EMTs and prosecutors while the state sits on its billions. In many cases, that is okay. But what I don’t think is okay is our continued raiding of the federal treasury when we can afford to do things for ourselves. I think that’s shameful.

But at some point along the line, the job of a congressional delegation became bringing home the bacon. They’ve all done it. They all do it. For the record, in the stories I read, Heidi’s team was first to the phone 7 times, Cramer’s 3 and Hoeven’s 2.  Unless they do things differently today.

2 thoughts on “Lining Up At The Federal Trough

  1. Every time Heidi posts a Facebook announcement about another federal grant or a visit from a federal official who’s come to visit so she can tell them how deep the needs are in North Dakota, I comment on this very subject. As a taxpayer in New York, a state that gets back far less than it sends in to the Feds and taxes its people much more heavily than North Dakota does, I do get a little resentful. I wonder aloud just why it is that states with unmet needs of their own and without the kind of resource exploitation available to fill State coffers that North Dakota has, should be sending money to Washington so it can go to North Dakota. Hell, even Wyoming sends in more than it gets back. You know who’s at the top of the list along with North Dakota? South Carolina, Florida, Alabama, Kentucky and Mississippi. Nice company, North Dakota. Yuck.

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