Burgum right to decry ND Legislature’s lack of transparency

There are many, much worse legislative bodies than the N.D. Legislature when it come to transparency.

However, the comparison to entities in other states, with different guidelines, is unfair to our Legislature. We are our own entity, with our own rules and state constitutional mandates.

That said, Gov. Doug Burgum made a solid case on his visit with the MDN editorial board last week that a veto he served up last week made sense because he felt it preserved transparency for North Dakota taxpayers.

At issue was what would seem to many to be a simple accounting issue.

Although the governor had much praise for the work of the Republican-dominated Legislature, Burgum’s administration had proposed directly allocating oil tax revenue to the general fund rather than having the Legislature transfer money into the general fund to pay for general-fund expenses.

Joe Morrissette, director of the Office of Management and Budget, also on his swing through Minot, said the use of transfers makes the budget structurally unbalanced. He explained the state’s bond rating is hurt by an unbalanced general fund, where transfers will total $850 million next biennium. The cost of borrowing by public schools and other agencies is affected by the state’s lower bond rating.

Burgum said by depriving the general fund of a direct appropriation, legislators disguise the state’s financial position during the budget process, adding that often it’s legislative leaders hiding information from other legislators.

The governor told the MDN editorial board that the actions of the Legislature inappropriately misrepresented the current financial status of the the State of North Dakota. He said there was plenty of funding available for a balanced budget and that misrepresenting the state’s condition, with the end result being lower bond ratings – and thus higher expenses for local for local government and school districts – was the price to be paid for the accounting misrepresentation.

“So there’s a purposeful approach to try to suggest that there’s no money through the whole session, and then at the last minute, we were able to somehow transfer in the exact amount to cover it,” Burgum said. “That’s the part where we feel it’s less transparent than it should be, because both the appropriators should know what the financial position is as they’re making appropriation decisions and taxpayers should be able to easily understand what that is.”

Sure it might be a simple accounting issue, but it has real impact on cities and towns in North Dakota, and Burgum is right to effort to maintain the best possible bond ratings for local entities.

However packaged, the more transparency in state government the better. It should be an objective of both houses of the state Legislature and the governor.

Let’s try to maintain, and expand, public transparency.

Good call, Gov. Burgum.


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