McFeely: Democrats were right about ND's budget

FARGO--The average age of the three Republicans talking at a news conference Wednesday, July 13, in the state Capitol was 69. Which makes the yoga session conducted by Gov. Jack Dalrymple (67), House Majority Leader Al Carlson (67) and Senate Maj...

Mike McFeely, Oct. 17, 2015Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

FARGO-The average age of the three Republicans talking at a news conference Wednesday, July 13, in the state Capitol was 69. Which makes the yoga session conducted by Gov. Jack Dalrymple (67), House Majority Leader Al Carlson (67) and Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner (73) all the more impressive.

The three Republican amigos twisted themselves into pretzels trying to explain why the state Legislature is going into special session next month to address North Dakota's budget shortfall. Specifically, the amigos said, legislators would look at targeted cuts instead of the 4 percent across-the-board slashing Dalrymple instituted earlier this year when the state's once-rosy budget outlook cratered because of drops in agriculture commodity and oil prices.

Remember not so long ago when North Dakota Nice became North Dakota Smug and Republicans were dislocating their shoulders patting themselves on the back for their oil-boom budgets? Yeah, not so much anymore.

Instead, the state's top three Republicans explained that waiting months longer than necessary to call a special session was the prudent thing to do so they could see exactly what they were dealing with, exactly what the Legislature needed to do, after the latest budget numbers came out.

This twisting, bending and stretching was required because-egad!-it was Democrats who first called for a special session in March, citing the need for more-focused cuts than the one-size-fits-all approach triggered by the governor. Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider of Grand Forks and House Minority Leader Kenton Ohnstad of Parshall said back then that property-tax relief and the Department of Human Services needed to be protected from mandated cuts.


At the time, Dalrymple nixed the idea of a special session. Republicans said there was no hurry, that a December organizational meeting scheduled to prepare for the start of the 2017 regular legislative session would be a more appropriate time to address budget concerns.

The tune changed Wednesday, as Carlson talked about protecting the state's "vulnerable population" and Dalrymple said K-12 education would be excluded from cuts. These guys showed so much concern about downtrodden people and kids it's almost as if there's an election coming up between now and December.

Despite being right in calling for a special session long ago, Schneider was not taking a victory lap. He was a guest on my 970 WDAY radio show and refused to do it, even when goaded.

"I have no interest in being right for the sake of being right," he said. "The fact of the matter is, these automatic budget cuts that went into place just don't make any sense. It's no way to run a state government. When everyday North Dakotans are faced with a crunch in their household budgets, nobody would ever dream of paying 96 percent of their mortgage or 96 percent of the life insurance premium or 96 percent of the day care bill. That's just not how things work."

Democrats called all along for keeping certain parts of the budget immune from cuts. That included things like nursing home aid, funding for addiction programs, property-tax relief and programs that need a certain level of state funding to get matching federal money.

"Our plan would've kept 80 percent of the automatic cuts in place. ... But let's not shoot ourselves in the foot with these automatic budget cuts," Schneider said. "These are decisions that should be made by the people's representatives, rather than making budget cuts by cruise control."

Democrats, in fact, are calling for long-term reform when it comes to budgeting. They believe the process of implementing automatic budget cuts when times get tough is an outdated product of the 1980s, when the state was broke. Modern times and a changed state budget landscape, they say, calls for more flexibility than just having lawmakers call it good after setting a two-year budget.

"It's very unfortunate that Republican leaders felt that this could wait until the last minute. We knew revenues wouldn't hold forever," said Rep. Ben Hanson of West Fargo. "This is yet another example showing the need for a new format and new thinking when it comes to budgeting for the state in the long term."


Yes, this is politics. Republicans are ignoring the fact Democrats were right and are spinning the narrative that they were just being prudent in waiting so long to call for a special session. Democrats are trumpeting the fact they were right and trying to paint the Republicans as being too slow in responding to a crisis.

However you see the situation likely depends on your political beliefs. There are a few things you can't deny, though.

Democrats said months ago a special session was needed to address specific budget concerns.

Republicans, after first denying a special session was needed, said they'll hold one in August to address specific budget concerns.

The Democrats were right, even if a trio of old guys doing yoga tried to say otherwise.

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