GRAND FORKS — The North Dakota Legislature is “our petri dish,” Sen. Ray Holmberg told Forum News Service last month. The line was repeated in a Grand Forks Herald story over the weekend.
Holmberg, of Grand Forks, was referring to COVID-19, which has dominated the session so far.
The label is apt. The legislative chambers are confined spaces, and a lot of hot air is expelled in them, so contagion has a chance to spread. This isn’t the only session that’s been confronted by illness. One lawmaker arrived at the 2017 session with a heavy cold and it spread like wildfire, not sparing lobbyists or reporters. We named it after him.
This session, I will be watching from afar. COVID is part of the reason, but personal circumstances make it impossible for me to be in Bismarck. It’s my first absence in half a century. I miss it. Already. Lawmaking is a spectator sport, and as a reporter, I’ve had a ringside seat.
Over the years, I’ve noted that ideas spread as quickly as COVID at the Legislature. This session has produced a couple of notable notions so far, one of them on the first day, when Gov. Doug Burgum proposed a permanent “stabilization fund” for higher education. A second came even earlier, during the organizational session, when Burgum used his budget address to recommend bonding for infrastructure projects.
Neither of these ideas is new, but neither has gained support enough for passage in the past. I first heard of the higher education fund from Mark Hagerott, chancellor of the state university system, during the 2017 session. By comparison, bonding has been a taboo subject at the Legislature. As one lawmaker said, “It is debt.”
Attitudes may be changing, and COVID may have had a role. Interest rates are at enticingly low levels, making this an especially good time for borrowing, which is what bonding amounts to. Put plainly, credit is cheap right now.
North Dakota is a good credit risk under any circumstances. The state is flush, even if much of its treasure is locked up in various special use funds. The higher education stabilization fund would be another of these. Elementary and high schools already have a “stabilization fund,” and these schools have been “held harmless” financially during belt-tightening times.
Such times are an inevitable consequence of an economy that relies on commodities. Farm prices go down and tax collections follow. Oil prices collapse and so does the budget. When these economic certainties occur simultaneously, the hurt is even more extreme.
Higher education is especially vulnerable, because it is among the most expensive parts of the state budget. This year, about half of the cuts Gov. Burgum has suggested are to the state’s 11 public colleges and universities. That increases the appeal of a stabilization fund.
The theory is that the fund would help attract and retain staff and protect core programs that don’t generate high enrollment, including liberal arts programs, which introduce students to a wider world and equip them for citizenship and critical thinking. The governor’s speech suggested a different motive. “The fund should be used to stabilize higher education funding, finding ways to drive growth and incentivize increased public-private partnerships and investment in 21st century education models,” Burgum said. This reflects his notion that colleges are job training sites rather than growth chambers for developing intellects.
The proposal this year is for a study of the idea leading to potential legislation in the 2023 session.
The point here is that a pandemic doesn’t reduce the creative juices that drive legislative ideas. The 1919 session proved that. Despite the Spanish flu pandemic, the Legislature did its work — in quarters that were much draftier and more cramped than the chambers are today. That session produced legislation establishing the Bank of North Dakota and the state-owned mill and elevator, institutions that have served the state well for more a century.
Turning attention farther afield: It was a relief to see that none of North Dakota’s congressional delegation joined the effort to overturn the results of the presidential election. Not so in Minnesota’s delegation, two of whom joined the effort. Michelle Fischbach, newly elected in the 7th District just across the river, was one of them. It was her first significant vote in the U.S. House. She defeated Rep. Collin Peterson in the 7th District. Peterson had served for 30 years. He was the only Democrat to vote against impeachment of the president last year.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.