Gov. Jack Dalrymple’s last budget proposal brings the state back to the early days of the oil boom. It’s a budget born of necessity, not need.
During the oil boom years there was a need to build up infrastructure, fund law enforcement and other programs. Now, with declining revenues, it’s necessary to make do with less for higher education and fewer state employees. There will be some pain involved, but it’s the sensible thing to do. Dalrymple’s plan provides a starting point for the Legislature and Gov.-elect Doug Burgum. There no doubt will be changes proposed in the budget and updated revenue projections during the legislative session could influence decisions.
Some legislators will probably have some spending ideas not included in Dalrymple’s plan. It may be difficult to go from a time of seemingly unlimited budgets to restrained spending. Leadership will have to keep firm control over the situation.
Some of the cuts aren’t as drastic as they appear. The plan to cut 583 state employees, 315 in higher education and 268 in other agencies, already is in progress. Some of the employees were cut during two rounds of reductions earlier this year. Some jobs weren’t filled when employees retired or left for other employment. While government may get more efficient, it may not get faster. As employees take on more duties it may take more time to complete tasks.
Dalrymple wants a 5 percent reduction in higher education and has recommended capping tuition increases at 2.5 percent for each of the next two years. It would be good if legislators could find a way to avoid any tuition increases. It would be nice to avoid an additional burden on parents and students. The outgoing governor also wants to proceed with a state takeover of county social services. Lawmakers have been receptive to the plan, but the revenue outlook might slow down the change.
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Dalrymple also proposed moving state tobacco cessation programs to the North Dakota Department of Health. This has been a sore point with many legislators since a 2008 ballot measure created another agency to control the funds. Legislators will likely jump at the chance to move the funds to the health department, where they also can be used for other programs.
The Legislature also should consider raising the tax on cigarettes with the money going to the general fund. The state has one of the lowest tobacco taxes in the nation and raising the tax makes sense. Putting it in the general fund allows it to be used for a variety of programs.
Other proposals that should get positive consideration include continued funding of Medicaid expansion and the restocking of reserves. The Budget Stabilization Fund would increase to $454.2 million and the budget creates about $43.7 million in general fund reserves by June 30, 2019.
Overall, it’s a $13.475 billion budget proposal.
Legislators plan to avoid floor sessions during the early part of the session, which starts Jan. 3, and focus on committee work. They will not gavel in on Jan. 4-5 and remain in committee, permitting them to not officially use those two days as session days. This will give them more time during the session. If everything goes well, Burgum and legislators can decide on changes to Dalrymple’s budget early in the session. This will no doubt be a difficult session, it’s never easy to say no, but Dalrymple has provided a good guide for the start.