We’re inching ever closer to next year’s Legislative Session. North Dakota’s lawmakers are watching state revenue in anticipation of that event. Unfortunately, too many of them are watching for all the wrong reasons— they want to have an idea of how much they get to spend.
In the closing days of the 2017 Legislative Session, we wondered if the Legacy Fund would go untouched or whether it would be “used as an excuse to get us by until the state can spend like drunkards again”. You may recall that spending more than doubled over the course of about a decade.
As it turned out, the legislature drained reserve funds (often referred to as “buckets”) to the tune of nearly $800 million to make the budget work. House Minority Leader Corey Mock (D – District 18) pointed out in his concluding remarks on the House floor, that this amount was nearly 20% of the entire budget. $200 million of that was from the earnings of the Legacy Fund.
So, while the 2017 budget represented a cut in spending to about 2011 levels, the reality is that overall it was a reduction of an increase. The message was clear from too many lawmakers— let’s hope we can patch things over until we can spend again.
On the heels of a report that legislators may face a major funding gap in the 2019 Legislative Session, I wrote that it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a move to raid the Legacy Fund. Shortly after that, Governor Doug Burgum gave his State of the State speech in which he indicated the state may once again need to tap Legacy Fund earnings “to get us through this period of time where we’re just using it to fund government”. Yet, he also indicated he would not be in favor of tapping the principal.
An article from the Bismarck Tribune just two days ago tells us that:
“The Legacy Fund, which sits at around $5.5 billion, including $1 billion in net earnings since inception, is expected to be a hot topic next session, from digging into either the principal or earnings to what proposals may come forth.” (Emphasis Added)
While he wouldn’t divulge the details, Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner indicated to the Tribune that he’s got an idea “that’s going to work for everybody”. Senator Minority Leader Joan Heckaman (D – District 23) says she’s not opposed to tapping the principal at all.
With revenues exceeding projections – and a Legacy Fund that now exceeds $5.5 billion – it seems some folks are looking for ways to spend as much as we possibly can. It’s indeed like a bunch of drunkards who are low on cash and looking forward to their next pay day.
I was one of the 63.5% that voted in favor of the Legacy Fund in November of 2010. Just prior to that election, a good political friend of mine contacted me to express her opposition to the measure. Her feelings were that its passage would ultimately permit lawmakers to fund a government that’s bigger than it should be. In retrospect, she was right.
In October of 2010, the Bismarck Tribune expressed its support for passage of the Legacy Fund. What they published – not even eight years ago – is fascinating in light of the debate ahead of us:
“We have been assured the state will have the funds to set aside savings in the Legacy Fund and still fulfill its other commitments made on behalf oil and gas tax revenues. Passing this initiated measure will not hurt the Legislature’s ability to fund basic state needs. The measure would make spending money from the Legacy Fund difficult but not impossible. It’s a savings program for the state.
“There are those who wish to spend now, investing in the future. Unfortunately, that path leads to spending patterns that require more and more revenue, to the point that the state might not be able to sustain the spending without increasing taxes.” (Emphasis Added)
From the arguments that I recall, together with the one you just read, I’d say we were sold a bill of goods. How can it be said to be anything else when we’re talking about tapping that very “savings program” to fund the “basic state needs” we were promised wouldn’t become problematic with its passage?
The spendthrifts of the 2019 Legislature need to leave their grubby hands off the Legacy Fund. They need to find the courage to do what is right— reduce the size of government and live within our means. At the very least, that’s what I expect out of those that call themselves Republicans.