For the two years we lived in North Dakota, we were a couple of questions many, many times: 1) When were we planning on having kids? And 2) Were we planning on staying in the state for a long time?
You see, the state was dying back then. The population was dipping to just under 700,000 for the entire state, a number I proudly pointed out to friends was almost the exact combined population of just the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. In small towns, more people meant more tax income, more local spending, and with kids came more school funding from the state. In fact, in the town of Plaza (population 150 back then), I was actually told, in no uncertain terms, that any child we had that stayed until school age would be a boon to the school district.
Now, of course, the state is in a boom, fueled by rampant oil exploration. The whole west-central part of the state is leading the charge, and workers have come from all over the country to work on the wells. The state’s economy is doing extremely well as a result, with the state government coffers filled thanks to taxes and fees paid for the drilling, and the rest of the economy moving along thanks to spending by the workers.
But you need to be careful what you wish for. I’ve read that some rental housing prices out there are rivaling those in New York, fueled purely by the fact that there is such scarce housing, and people are willing to pay the high prices. It’s been a great thing for the state, by most measures, so much so that the legislature actually put an amendment before the voters to eliminate property taxes.
A fine idea, but awfully short-sighted. Sure, things are booming, but how long will they last? And, as we learned by living out there and covering school board meetings for the papers: property taxes were the only other funding mechanism besides state funding that school districts had available to them. Cut that off, and where would the money come from?
I know that the state has had quite a history with its taxes: before we arrived, in fact, the legislature tried raising income from the flagging economy by raising income taxes in the state. Within two years, nearly everyone who had voted yes to that measure was out of the legislature. So I know that the voters of North Dakota don’t like taxes. But they also aren’t that stupid, either.
The state is in a great position: invest in all of the infrastructure they need now, while they’re flush. Save as much as they can besides that, and then down the road when this oil boom starts to fade, they’ll be in a position to soften the blow. No, I don’t think they’ll ever see the population grow over 1 million, but now’s the chance to build things up to diversify and position themselves for the future. Because at some point, those oil workers may bring their families out to live there too, and you need a reason for those families to stay.
There are lessons there for states currently feeling the pinch, because everything’s on a cycle: some day, those states will be doing very well, too.
In the meantime, maybe you can have the new families all start brainstorming ideas for the new UND mascot name.
See you tomorrow.