Community Opinion

Upside Down Under

Farming out the government…

Back in the early ‘90s, Gov. Ed Schafer had a policy of occasionally taking the entire state government on the road and setting up shop in a pre-selected community somewhere in North Dakota.

By Marvin Baker

The residents of the state absolutely loved it, especially those communities that were chosen as ‘Capitol for a Day.’ However, can you imagine what the cost of that might have been?

When it came time for Langdon to be ‘Capitol for a Day,’ (and I suspect this happened in a lot of places) a number of us were at the airport waiting for the governor’s plane to arrive. As Schafer’s plane landed and was taxiing down the runway, Lt. Gov. Rosemary Myrdal was right behind him in a second plane.

When the government got set up in the Langdon Community Center, nearly every department in state government was represented. Some of the people working for the government liked the fact that they could get out of Bismarck for a day and still be on payroll. The entire program had a hefty price tag, but in Schafer’s mind, it was more about citizens having better access to their government.

But there’s another way that access could be accomplished on a regular basis and cost a fraction of what it cost you and I, the taxpayers, in the 1990s. What would happen if some of the government agencies located on the capitol grounds were moved to other communities on a permanent basis?

This isn’t about Fargo, Grand Forks or Minot. This is about small towns in North Dakota that could be revitalized. There are a number of communities that are shrinking, and even though government is a consumer not a producer, the business of government could keep several small communities in the state afloat for the foreseeable future.

Let’s assume the entire Department of Transportation moved its operations to Valley City. Then, the entire Department of Public Instruction moved its offices to Carrington or New Rockford? The Health Department could move to a western community such as Stanley or New Town to keep an eye on environmental hazards from the oil industry.

Some of the top-heavy departments could actually be located in more than one community but close to each other such as Oakes and Ellendale or Larimore and Northwood.

The executive branch would obviously remain in Bismarck.

None of these moves would have a direct impact on how state government operates because of the technology today; New Rockford and Bismarck might as well be the same community.

We have telephone conference calls, we have Skype and Facetime, and when paperwork has to be shuffled, there’s that dinosaur called the fax machine.

If you talk to people on the street in Bismarck, few of them are actually natives of Bismarck. They moved there from Mott, Linton, Kensal, Crosby, Rolette and Cooperstown. Further, if those government workers were born and raised in Bismarck, you can rest assured they have close families in communities like Mayville, Cavalier, Devils Lake, Beach and Alexander.

In the late 1990s, Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon proposed an idea to the entire province and that was to move some provincial offices to many of the smaller communities across Manitoba. At first everybody, especially those in Winnipeg, thought Filmon lost his mind primarily because some people would have to leave the big city if they wanted to keep their jobs.

Schafer and Filmon knew each other well, and I suspect that Filmon took Schafer’s idea to the next level by farming out the government.

After the Manitoba program was implemented and those voyaging government employees were re-located, it wasn’t that bad. Some actually liked their new digs. Many of them said so as has been documented in local newspapers.

So what happens when someone in Flin Flon needs their license renewed with the office in Morden, 523 miles away? Teleconferencing is used much like in today’s court system.

It’s obvious that something like this is easier said than done. Bismarck is growing like leafy spurge, Hettinger isn’t. Edgeley needs the jobs; Bismarck doesn’t.

Government should never be used to replace free enterprise, but even five or 10 state employees working in a small town could prop up the local economy enough to bring other businesses to town or expand those that are already in place.