(Or is it the Grand Forks Herald editors?)
I've felt, for months or years, like I was a lone voice, crying out in the night.
"Before we even think about cutting taxes or giving tax rebates to the people, we have to look at the state of our infrastructure," I've been saying forever. (See here, here, here or sit near me at a political meeting sometime). I completely understand that if the government has too much money that we need to do something to remedy that, but before we can say "the government has too much money," don't we have to look at the things we've been neglecting for the past 20 years?
And so here's an excerpt from the Jamestown Sun's editorial (from the GF Herald?) today:
North Dakota ought to approach its surplus as a dairy farmer would a windfall. The farmer would fix the milking machine.
There’s plenty broken in North Dakota that needs fixing. Property taxes are way too high, for example, because the state spends less than it should for schools. This leaves local school districts to provide the cost of education, and their only source of revenue is the property tax. The situation isn’t any better in the higher education system, which is chronically underfunded. The buildings and grounds director on every campus can show off drafty windows, leaky roofs and cracked sidewalks.
This deteriorating infrastructure isn’t limited to the campuses. The International Peace Garden, the state’s signature attraction, needs funds to repair several buildings. State parks are in similar condition.
Really? We have deteriorating infrastructure!?! Say it isn't so!
Check out this from the American Society of Civil Engineers:
Key Infrastructure Facts (2005)
· Vehicle travel on North Dakota’s highways increased 26% from 1990 to 2003.
· The North Dakota Department of Transportation has a $1.45 billion maintenance backlog.
· Driving on roads in need of repair costs North Dakota motorists $62 million a year in extra vehicle repairs and operating costs—$135 per motorist.
· 24% of North Dakota’s bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.
· There are 17 statedetermined deficient dams in North Dakota.
· North Dakota has 20 high hazard dams. high hazard dam is defined as a dam whose failure would cause a loss of life and significant property damage.
· The rehabilitation cost for North Dakota’s most critical dams is $25.7 million.
· North Dakota’s drinking water infrastructure needs $490 million over the next 20 years.
· North Dakota has $52 million in wastewater infrastructure needs.
· North Dakota generates 1.01 tons of solid waste per capita.
· North Dakota recycles 9.4% of the state's solid waste.
· 49% of North Dakota’s schools have at least one inadequate building feature.
· 62% of North Dakota’s schools have at least one unsatisfactory environmental condition.
American Society of Civil Engineers
By looking at those numbers, it's not very hard to figure out what our leaders should be doing with $1.2 billion in government surplus.
But it's probably worse than that. Although some money has been spent on infrastructure since 2005, hundreds or thousands of oil trucks have been pounding the crap out of our road system during that entire time. If you've driven our roads lately, you know things are worse now and not better.
A gripe I have with the editorial, though, is that the first "broken" thing they say we have in North Dakota is high property taxes. That may be true (but it may not be true), but we won't know whether it's true until the state properly funds education and takes care of the neglected infrastructure.
We have all these initiated measures out there with their proponents using Heritage Foundation-style focus-grouped language like "Do you think your government knows how to spend your money better than you do?" Well, obviously this particular bunch doesn't. They want to blindly cut personal income taxes and cut corporate income taxes and sock away oil tax revenue for a few years while the schools, highways and other government buildings fall apart. That's a horrible way to run a government but it's what they've been doing for years. They're letting our state's infrastructure fall apart so they can give handouts to themselves, to the oil companies and to other big business types.
It's time to figure out whether the milking machine needs to be fixed.
Here's what I would propose: The Governor (or some legislative leaders) should form an "infrastructure task force." Tell the task force that it is a "macro" group and not a "micro" group. "Be good fact checkers, but don't focus on the minutia too much," they should be told. Have them put together a comprehensive report on the status of North Dakota's State, City and County infrastructures. (I know. Maybe it should just be limited to state. I'm just brainstorming here.) The task force's report should tell the citizens how good or bad the bridges, highways and streets look and give us three options on how much time and money need to be focused on each. Tell us how good or bad the K-12 infrastructure looks (Note: remember; the state constitution says the state legislature is supposed to fund K-12 education). The report should tell us how good or bad the university system's buildings and grounds look and what it would cost to bring up to average. It should tell us how the city and county road departments look. Are they operating with 19th century equipment? If so, tell us what needs to be done to bring them into the 20th Century (at least). It should be a big picture look at the entire state government, at least, and also a look at county and city governments too. The title should be "How are we doing?" The most important page(s) would be the summary.
Think about it: Who -- today -- has comprehensive knowledge of the state of our state? Our governor hasn't been out from his desk long enough to know. The legislative leaders don't. I doubt there's a state agency that has a good, big-picture perspective. Neither political party knows. The American Society of Civil Engineers painted a more comprehensive picture than anybody else seems to have done, but it's still only a partial picture, and it doesn't look very good. If we had a real manager somewhere in state government -- or a dairy farmer -- they'd want a big picture perspective on how far behind we are on taking care of the milking machine.
I think the voters have a right to make an informed decision on the oil tax trust fund measure and on the personal and corporate property tax measure. When we vote on these measures, we have a right to make informed decisions. We will not be informed voters unless a reliable review is done and a report issued telling the citizens where we stand today. Without such a report, we'll be voting with our eyes closed.
The problems today are (1) that there isn't much time to get it done; and (2) that we've seen what we get from this bunch when you ask for an "independent" review of something. Hoeven would appoint some self-interested, agenda-driven prostitute to do the review and write up the report and it would say whatever Hoeven had said -- in advance -- he wants it to say.
Oh well. It was a good idea while it lasted.
P.S. Republicans always steal Democrat's ideas. Anybody want to place any bets on how long before Hoeven comes out with a revolutionary plan to form a task force so that the people can be informed on the initiated measures when they vote?