North Dakota lawmakers hire their own economic consultancy

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Top North Dakota lawmakers hired their own economic consultant Tuesday to give the Legislature a second opinion on state revenue forecasts that have missed the mark by hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years.
The Legislative Revenue Advisory Committee, an eight-member panel that includes Republican and Democratic leaders, voted unanimously to approve the $49,200 contract for Colorado-based IHS Inc.
The consultancy, which provides and analyzes information for businesses and governments, will be used to update the current two-year revenue forecast and develop another for 2019-2021.
A huge drop in North Dakota tax collections due to depressed oil and farm commodity prices forced the state to scramble to make up for shortfalls to the state treasury for the past three years due to lower-than-expected tax collections.
Lawmakers this year drained a rainy day fund, pared back government agencies, and used some profits from the state-owned Bank of North Dakota to make up $1.4 billion in the state budget that was based on economic assumptions that were too rosy.
Revenue estimates signal how much money legislators may have to spend in the future. Analysts compile information to estimate the state’s tax collections and to gauge the health of North Dakota’s economy.
State budget analysts and the economic consultancy Moody’s Analytics have been working together for nearly two decades on the revenue forecasts.
Many top lawmakers, however, have been critical of how revenue forecasts have been crafted and explored options of doing their own. But earlier this year, Republican Gov. Doug Burgum vetoed a section of a bill that would create a legislative panel allowing lawmakers to pursue the idea.
The GOP-led Legislature instead created an interim committee that was out of the governor’s reach. The Legislature is paying for revenue forecasts from a fund set aside for lawmakers’ consultants that contains about $125,000, according to Allen Knudson, the lead budget analyst at the Legislative Council, the Legislature’s research arm.
“At the end of the day, we are responsible for the budget,” said Grand Forks GOP Sen. Ray Holmberg, who heads the committee.
State Budget Director Pam Sharp said Moody’s was paid about $102,000 to develop revenue forecasts during the previous two-year budget cycle. Moody’s was the sole bidder on another six-year contract awarded in November. The company will be paid about $140,000 over the next two years, she said.
The contract may be renegotiated every two years, Sharp said.
“If we are not happy with their services, we can end it,” she said.
Moody’s economist Dan White said he doesn’t have a problem with lawmakers hiring their own economic consultant. But he warned that in the end, the state’s budget should be crafted from a single revenue forecast.
“Any time you have competing revenue forecasts, it’s not best practices,” he said. “It allows politics to enter into what should be an economics discussion.”
Republican House Majority Leader Al Carlson of Fargo and Democratic House Minority Leader Corey Mock of Grand Forks said the goal is to have the best information possible.
“We don’t want to pick a fight,” Carlson said.