Tribune editorial: State needs to use federal funds wisely

Tribune editorial: State needs to use federal funds wisely

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North Dakota has started allocating money it received from Congress to counter the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. The public needs to pay attention to how the state uses the money.

Under the CARES Act, North Dakota receives at least $1.25 billion. It may seem like a lot, but it won’t be difficult to spend. While our state has been fortunate compared to many other states — we never completely closed down our economy — we took our share of blows.

Restaurants, bars, clinics, salons, barber shops and theaters were closed or had limited business. Churches, soup kitchens and charities suffered. The oil industry was crippled by the Russia-OPEC conflict along with the pandemic.

Nationally, it’s predicted that one out of four restaurants could fail because of the pandemic. Some people lost jobs that won’t come back.

So there are many ways North Dakota can tap into the federal funds. Some steps to allocate the funds are underway. It’s been decided some of the money can be used to deal with the state’s unemployment insurance costs.

Everyone might not agree with two recent efforts to use the funds.

The North Dakota Emergency Commission last week approved $33.1 million from the federal aid to plug “orphaned” oil wells, many abandoned by financially-strapped companies. The intent behind the funding is to provide jobs for oil field workers who lost their jobs when oil prices crashed.

The theory is this will keep workers in the state until the oil patch rebounds.

Companies must post a $100,000 bond for a producing oil well, but the cost of plugging and reclaiming a site can cost $150,000. According to state Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms, oil companies don’t have the money for plugging and reclaiming.

Whether it’s the best use of state funds to help out the oil industry can be debated. Officials feel it’s in the best interest of the state to help the workers and industry until oil production rebounds. Like it or not, the state has become dependent on the oil patch.

On Monday, the Legislative Procedure and Arrangements Committee voted to use up to $750,000 of the federal aid to provide 14 committee rooms with equipment for livestreaming and remote participation. The funds also would be used to upgrade the House and Senate chambers.

The Legislature has been developing a plan to provide the public with access to livestreaming of committee hearings and floor action. The pandemic has prompted legislators to fast track the process.

Legislators want to be prepared if the pandemic continues to pose problems when they go into session in January. The public would be able to follow the hearings and participate through the remote service.

The Tribune editorial board has supported the upgrades in livestreaming and remote participation. The pandemic has demonstrated the need for it.

These are worthwhile projects, but we can’t forget the people who lost income, jobs or the support services they relied on. Nonprofits are struggling to meet the needs of those who depend on them.

The Tribune has been impressed by the state’s overall handling of the pandemic. Hopefully, we can do as well with the recovery.

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