Schneider and Onstad: Questionable priorities riddle legislative session
Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, and House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, recently boasted on the pages of this newspaper that they "got the job done for the citizens" of North Dakota. With respect for our friends the legis...
Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, and House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, recently boasted on the pages of this newspaper that they "got the job done for the citizens" of North Dakota. With respect for our friends the legislative majority leaders, if that's the definition of getting the job done, we fully expect the people of North Dakota to decide someone else should do the job next session. Too often, tremendous opportunities were squandered by an overly-ideological GOP majority with seriously misplaced priorities.
Take their approach to taxes. While the fallout over last year's Measure 2 debate should have focused attention squarely on providing deeper property tax relief, one of the majority's first acts was to move forward with a radical and reckless cut to the oil extraction tax.
It would have cost the state $1.3 billion in the first five years alone, but every single GOP senator voted for the oil tax cut before the majority was even close to having a plan to reduce property taxes. GOP legislators in the House voted for a similar proposal before ultimately walking it back in the face of public pressure.
The GOP majority then insisted on $250 million in reductions to the income tax and corporate taxes, 82 percent of which are paid by out of state corporations, including big-box retailers like Walmart.
When Democrat-NPL senators tried to turn that $250 million into direct property tax relief -- something that would have reduced property taxes by an additional 12.5 percent across the board -- the majority voted it down in lock step.
The majority's questionable priorities extend to education. While even conservative states like Alabama, Oklahoma, and Georgia are moving towards access to early childhood education for all 4-year-olds, the GOP majority voted against state support for pre-kindergarten programs in our state.
And Wardner and Carlson's claim of passing "unprecedented funding for K-12 education" strikingly omits the fact that Carlson himself led an 11th-hour effort to kill legislation that funds elementary and secondary schools. This legislative malpractice threw the closing hours of the session into chaos, resulting in an end product that reduced funding for education by about $53 million from the executive budget.
When it comes to higher education, the majority somehow managed to both increase spending and shoot down Democrat-NPL legislation to hold the line on tuition, ensuring North Dakota will continue to lead the country when it comes to the percentage of college graduates who carry student debt.
And the "flood prevention" efforts discussed by the majority leaders often resembled "flood protection prevention." Consider Carlson's own amendments to a key water bill that would have scuttled Fargo's plan to protect itself from flooding: Only after a tremendous push by Fargo's elected officials and business leaders -- and two attempts -- were Carlson's harmful amendments stripped from the bill by the Senate. It's not just ironic that the largest impediment to flood protection for North Dakota's largest city was the majority leader from Fargo. It's also indicative of a GOP majority that increasingly sees itself as unaccountable to voters.
That isn't to say we didn't have some successes this session. Democrat-NPL legislators were proud to work with what practical members of the majority there are to pass Medicaid expansion, fund the University of North Dakota medical school and restore hundreds of millions in dollars to address oil impacts that had been previously cut by the majority in the Senate. But significant challenges remain, and to say that the job is "done" in the face of those challenges places political self-congratulation over reality.
When you measure the actions of the Legislature against our state's nearly-unlimited potential, the GOP majority has made the case that getting the job done more effectively means bringing political balance to Bismarck.
Schneider is the North Dakota Senate Minority Leader and is from Grand Forks. Onstad is the House Minority Leader and is from Parshall.