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Bismarck, we have a spending problem

Next week, the legislature will be in session. It’s required every ten years for the purpose of redrawing our state’s legislative districts to adapt to changing population numbers. Although that is the only objective that must be fulfilled, others will be addressed. The issue of vaccine mandates surely will be. This is not only reasonable, but critical to address during the special session, because delaying until the next full session in 2023 will be far too late. The third big item is to address $1B of Federal money from the American Recovery Plan (ARPA). There is great eagerness to spend this as fast as possible. The Governor has proposed his own plan to spend all of it and a whole lot more.

According to federal guidelines, the money doesn’t need to be appropriated until the end of 2024, or fully spent until 2026. In fact, if it weren’t for redistricting, the legislature would not even be considering spending the $1B. Upon receiving a request sent to legislators for proposals on projects to spend the money, I submitted one to hold off on the spending until the next full session. In my opinion, spending a billion dollars isn’t something that should be jammed through a one-week special session. The citizens of North Dakota are far better served when that kind of money is addressed in a more deliberative and transparent manner.

I was asked how much support I expected on my proposal. My answer was that a small handful of legislators would vote for the proposal, however, a much larger number would agree the proposal is a good idea. Interestingly, the reason for that discrepancy is the perception of inevitability. When it comes to spending bills, there is an overwhelming sense that these budget bills are going to pass, so why fight a losing fight? More to the point, the thought process is really a risk assessment by the legislator. Why stick one’s neck out? Why be perceived by fellow legislators as being obstinate or worse, ideological?

This is why I chose to run for the legislature in 2012, and why, during my first session in 2013 I formed North Dakota’s version of the Freedom Caucus, called the Bastiat Caucus. Since 2011 we have seen dramatic increases in spending that mainly seem to be due to inertia, the perceived inevitability of the passage of the spending bills. It doesn’t matter what comes out of the appropriations committee, whether a 15%, 25%, or even 35% increase in an agency’s budget; it will pass. Many legislators don’t like all the spending, but they are not about to “take a stand”. So the yes votes come en masse, and then we all look at each other, recognizing we’ve spent a crazy amount of money, but reassuring each other that there really wasn’t much we could do about it anyway.

I received an email from a state senator pertaining to, among other things, voting No on budget bills. He identified 19 legislators who voted no on ten or more of the 49 budget bills during the 2021 session. His letter perfectly displays the errant thinking of some legislators when it comes to spending bills. He said that voting No on the budgets is an abdication of the responsibility we have to fund state government, and is not a conservative position. What he is doing is employing a very common logical fallacy known as a false choice, or false dilemma. The alleged choice legislators must make is between passing the state agency budget bill regardless of the amount, or choosing to not fund the agency at all. Completely ignored is the obvious choice to vote No on the large spending bill, and upon there being enough No votes, the bill will go back to committee, get pared down, and come back to the legislators to vote Yes on the less expensive bill – to the benefit of the taxpayer.

All in all, we have a very strong history of record-level spending in a legislature composed of a super-majority of Republicans. I believe it occurs to a significant degree due to basic human psychology. We don’t want to fight for something we believe has no chance of winning. We don’t want to stand out as being a problem, as it is much more comfortable to “go with the flow”. We don’t want to be singled out, marginalized, or ridiculed. And we have a tendency to buy into the idea that if we don’t vote in favor of the big-spending budget bills, we aren’t doing our job.

It’s all easily remedied, but legislators must first be aware that we have a spending problem, and we can actually fix it. I believe it will require much more pressure from the voters before we get to that point.

Becker is the founder and leader of the Bastiat Caucus of the North Dakota Republican Party and has represented District 7 in the House since 2013.

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