Gail Collins: Can a state have too much money? Ask North Dakota

Can a state be too rich for its own good? Well, things are definitely in flux in North Dakota.

It's not often we stop to ask ourselves: "What's going on with North Dakota?" But I believe this is the moment.

The state Legislature has been in a kind of anti-abortion meltdown, piling up bills with what-the-heck abandon. The House and Senate passed a fetal heartbeat bill that would prohibit abortions when a woman was about six weeks into pregnancy. They also each passed a fetal pain bill that would prohibit abortions at about 20 weeks. Plus, a resolution giving fetuses the rights of personhood, which would not only prohibit abortion altogether but would also outlaw some forms of infertility treatment and contraception. There was also a bill banning abortions on the basis of sex preference or possible genetic defects, none of which would be detectable by the time abortions were already prohibited under some of the other bills.

The governor pretty much signed everything they threw at him. "Folded like a tent in a blizzard," said an editorial in Fargo's daily paper. Opponents pointed out that, while the House was busy protecting fetuses, it had killed a bill providing free milk or juice to impoverished schoolchildren who actually had been born. The Senate rectified that embarrassment, sort of.

''They're taking the money we give to school districts for at-risk children and saying you have to use that money to provide juice and milk programs," said Corey Mock, an assistant minority leader in the House.


Things are in flux in North Dakota. Anything could happen with the milk money. Or the amendment to one anti-abortion bill that would end a federally funded sex education program for homeless teenagers. The bills the governor signed will probably be challenged in court, including a law requiring doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges with a local hospital, which could doom the state's lone abortion provider, the Red River Women's Clinic.

North Dakota has a strong libertarian streak that comes to a screeching halt when it reaches reproduction rights. Still, this seemed out of character. North Dakotans tend to be emotionally conservative; they don't approve of getting carried away. Last year, voters soundly defeated a proposal to abolish all property taxes and a "religious freedom" law giving employers the right to refuse to provide health coverage for contraception. A lot of people who found the ideas attractive still feared they carried the dreaded seeds of immoderation.

''Middle of the road; that's what they call the North Dakota way," said Jack Zaleski, the opinion editor of Fargo's daily.

This is the state that gave us national figures such as Sen. Kent Conrad, who was famous for speeches that involved his extensive use of very boring charts, and Sen. Byron Dorgan, who liked to remind people that he had been personally honored by the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council. I always admired that about North Dakota. What happened?

For one thing, the more aggressive wing of the anti-abortion movement is trying to use the state to stage a test case against Roe v. Wade. In the last election, several of these groups targeted Curtis Olafson, a conservative Republican state senator who had derailed some of their more spectacular bills under the theory that they would just lead to court fights that North Dakota would eventually lose.

''I hated to see taxpayers' money go down the drain for an exercise in futility," said Olafson, who is now an ex-senator, having lost his seat in a nasty primary.

So there's paranoia. But maybe the state also has too much money.

Until recently, North Dakota had a dwindling population and trouble balancing a very small state budget. Then came the oil boom and multibillion-dollar surpluses.


''We could bail out Cyprus, probably," said Mike Jacobs, the publisher of The Grand Forks Herald.

Now, the employment problem is a shortage of workers. One of many issues that was not getting resolved while the Legislature worked on its abortion agenda is a preschool crisis in oil-rich parts of the state.

''They can't afford to keep staff at the child-care centers when fast-food restaurants are paying $15 to $16 an hour," said Kylie Oversen, a representative from Grand Forks.

When signing the fetal heartbeat bill, Gov. Jack Dalrymple admitted it would be immediately challenged in court, and he seemed to share Olafson's dim view of success. But, hey, if legislators want to give it a shot, what the heck? They've got cash. "The Legislative Assembly before it adjourns should appropriate dollars for a litigation fund available to the attorney general," the governor suggested.

A shortage of money tends to keep things focused. When a legislature starts going off the rails, cool heads can pull the conversation back into line by reminding everybody that they're supposed to be focusing on "jobs, jobs, jobs." It gets a little tiresome after a while, but it does provide a much-needed sense of direction. While our Congress is certainly unsatisfactory in many ways, it's shown a lack of enthusiasm for having major fights over social issues in recent years, possibly because everybody wants to look jobs-jobs-jobs obsessive.

North Dakota led astray by lucre? Finally, we may have found a good side to recessions.

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