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Dennis: North Dakota's Legacy Fund inspires imitators

Tom Dennis

North Dakota does its share of things wrong. But here's a fairly recent decision that the state did right -- so right that West Virginians are traveling to Bismarck to see for themselves.

"A delegation of Democrats and Republicans from the West Virginia Legislature traveled to North Dakota to learn about that state's Legacy Fund, a savings account for oil and gas tax revenues," the Charleston Daily Mail noted in an editorial.

The trip "is a move to learn about a promising program in another resource-rich state. North Dakota voters approved that state's Legacy Fund in 2010. ... With booming oil production, the fund has collected $1.3 billion in just under two years."

In West Virginia, those numbers matter, because -- well, let's let another West Virginia newspaper, the Charleston Gazette, tell the tale:

"For more than a century, out-of-state owners have used West Virginia as a colony, bleeding away mineral wealth, paying a pittance in local taxes and leaving poverty behind when they depart," the newspaper editorialized.

"McDowell County is a dismal example. A half-century ago, when it was a bonanza for the coal industry, it boomed with nearly 100,000 population. But coal faded and McDowell shriveled to barely above 20,000. It ranks at the bottom of the 'misery index,' with worst poverty, health, unemployment, addiction, life expectancy and other evils.

"Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Chris Hedges calls McDowell a 'sacrifice zone' -- exploited by industry, then discarded."

No wonder the Gazette, like the Daily Mail, is interested in and supports the lawmakers' visit to North Dakota.

"If we had saved a penny, or a nickel, or a dime a ton from our coal reserves we'd be one of the richest states in the union instead of one of the poorest," said Jeff Kessler, president of the West Virginia Senate.

It's likely too late for coal, "because Appalachian mining slowly is dying as thick seams are depleted and lower-cost fuels grab markets," according to the Gazette.

But "now -- hurrah -- legislators are pondering a future fund for the Marcellus Shale gas boom, to reap state benefits as the drilling surge snowballs.

"Go for it, we say. This strategy could assure lasting security for coming generations."

That's just what it's delivering in North Dakota, a state whose residents should take pride in showing the way.

Dennis is the opinion editor of the Grand Forks Herald, which is a part of Forum News Service. Email him at