About five months ago, as western North Dakota was aching under the pressure of the oil boom, a well-connected Republican told me that Gov. Jack Dalrymple was planning to wait a few months before announcing a major investment of state money into things like new roads and public safety programs in the oil patch.
Waiting for what? The need for additional investment was already quite clear. And the state had just finished stashing away several hundred million dollars into various rainy day funds after meeting the budget requirements for the upcoming biennium.
My Republican friend told me the governor was waiting until summer, so his announcement would be timed just ahead of this fall’s general election. He said the governor himself acknowledged the timing would be much more beneficial, from a political standpoint, if the proposal was stalled for a few more months.
So, today, the governor followed through by announcing plans to spend $2.5 billion on road work and infrastructure projects funded by oil and gas impact grants. As part of the plan, local governments in the oil patch also will be allowed to keep a greater percentage of the revenue from the oil and gas tax.
The governor will probably say the announcement was a practical decision that came as quickly as possible. He will probably say there were no political games involved. But that’s hard to believe for many reasons.
First, the state had plenty of money and was well aware of the needs long ago. Local governments in the oil patch have been requesting more assistance for a couple of years now, with only a meager response from the state. Sure, the Legislature has invested several hundred million dollars to counties that have seen their crime skyrocket and their roads torn to shreds by large transport vehicles. But the money was not enough to get ahead of the needs, according to local leaders in the oil patch and state lawmakers from both parties, and it barely kept the infrastructure projects going while the state continued to pad its various savings accounts with an excess of $5 billion.
Second, the issue of state funding for infrastructure in western North Dakota was politicized a long time ago. Gov. Dalrymple has been taking a lot of heat for allowing the western part of the state to flounder while its oil revenue fills the coffers of state government. His opponent in the gubernatorial election, Ryan Taylor, has been touring the state for months touting plans to increase state spending for infrastructure in the oil patch.
Third, the announcement heralding Dalrymple’s plans to invest another $2.5 billion didn’t come from the Governor’s Office. It came from the governor’s re-election campaign. So it’s difficult to believe the timing of the announcement had nothing to do with the upcoming election. Even the governor’s own strategists didn’t try to hide the fact that this is a campaign issue.
Don’t get me wrong. Dalrymple’s decision to support additional investment in the oil patch is a good thing. It’s necessary if the state wants to make sure residents can continue using public roads, local law enforcement can continue fighting crime, and oil tankers can continue transporting crude to out-of-state refineries. Regardless of your political persuasion, there should be little doubt the state needs to do something significant to keep western North Dakota from falling apart at the seams.
What bothers me is that the announcement came so stinking late, long after everyone else realized more money was needed out west, and the timing was so incredibly convenient for Dalrymple as he seeks another term in office. I wish Dalrymple had proposed this new round of investment a long time ago because it makes sense, instead of waiting until now because it’s a good political move.
I also wish Dalrymple’s press release didn’t make him sound like some sort of grand visionary who stepped into the great beyond and returned with a revelation that communities in the oil patch will soon need more help from the state. After all, the same conclusion could have been drawn a year ago by reading newspaper headlines, visiting Williston or using a telephone to talk with people who live in western North Dakota.
Take this canned quote from Dalrymple’s press release, for example:
“In North Dakota we are in a position to create our future, making long-term investments in infrastructure and other priorities while still providing substantial tax relief and maintaining healthy reserves,” Gov. Dalrymple said. “Infrastructure has been an important focus of my administration, including re-engineering the Oil and Gas Impact Fund to quickly address the needs of communities in our oil and gas counties. This administration also is the first to invest state funds directly in county and township roads without any local match required. Now is the time to continue our current commitment to infrastructure with one-time investments from our cash reserves.”
Yes, governor, now is the time. Or last year. Or the year before.
-Matt Bunk is publisher of the Great Plains Examiner.