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North Dakota is No. 1

GRAND FORKS -- Just months ago, North Dakota was ranked as one of the most corrupt states, with failing grades in legislative accountability, political finance and ethics enforcement agencies.

Stop the hand-wringing. Somebody came up with a different test -- different questions, different measurements -- and boy, what a different result.

According to an extensive study by 24/7 Wall St., a respected financial news outlet, North Dakota is the best-run state in the nation.

But just as state officials quibbled with results of the corruption study (and a 2009 analysis by the Center for Public Integrity that named the state the most corrupt of all), there perhaps should be an oily asterisk attached to these happier rankings.

The study examined financial health, standard of living and government services to assess how each state was managed. South Dakota was ranked No 7., Minnesota at No. 10 and Wisconsin at No. 21.

In North Dakota, it was clear where much credit for good grades should go.

"North Dakota's oil boom has transformed its economy" and brought the state the lowest unemployment rate and highest GDP increase in the nation, the 24/7 Wall St. report states.

Nonetheless, North Dakota's top managers were quick to take a bow.

"This study recognizes that North Dakota's sound fiscal policies are working," said Gov. Jack Dalrymple, fresh off winning election to a full term after a campaign whose major themes included his stewardship of the state's oil boom.

"We are in a strong position to provide tax relief, maintain a healthy reserve while also investing in our priorities," he said in a statement released Wednesday, a day after the 24/7 Wall St. rankings were announced.

Al Anderson, the state's commerce commissioner, also chimed in. "This study simply reinforces that North Dakota has great qualities to offer businesses and workers," he said. "State and local leaders have worked hard to build an environment that supports business growth and creates a good quality of life for our citizens."

'Yay ... but ...'

Robert Wood, an associate professor of political science at the University of North Dakota and director of its Bureau of Governmental Affairs, offered a more restrained assessment.

"Normally, when we get this kind of data, we want to say 'Yahoo! We're No. 1!' -- and I don't want to throw any cold water on that," Wood said.

"But not long ago, we were ranked as the most corrupt state in the nation," he said. "With these rankings of the states, it really depends on how they're looking at things."

For starters, small states did well in the study. Wyoming ranked second, followed by Nebraska, Utah and Iowa. (California was the worst-managed state.)

"They're all going to have lower crime rates, and they were not hit hard by the housing bubble," Wood said of the small states.

And in North Dakota, there's the oil boom thing. "All the money coming in would make us look good even if we were mishandling it," Wood said.

How North Dakota ranks in the future will depend much on how state officials manage the challenges brought by the boom, he said. The part-time nature of the state's "citizen Legislature" could be a handicap.

"We're going to have to wait and see what they do this next session," which opens in January, Wood said. "The last time, they concentrated on managing revenue," putting much of it aside. "I think they did a nice job of that."

Moving forward, "there seems to be a high level of awareness of the challenges, but it seems that more could be done," he said. The state "had the election to worry about" for much of the past year, "but now attention turns to governing and getting serious about dealing with the problems."

Wood said he hopes the state seeks to manage change rather than simply lamenting it.

"I like those kinds of conversations, rather than 'I wish it could be the way it was,'" he said. "It's not going to go back to the way it was."