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Tuesday, January 08, 2019

SCHMID: TOP 10 STORIES OF 2018

SENATE BARNBURNER IN FARM COUNTRY
That was the description given to the U.S. Senate race between Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and Rep. Kevin Cramer by the Wall Street Journal.  It reflected national interest in a race which could have determined control of the Senate and was the ND story of the year.  Polls initially indicated a tight contest, but Cramer became favored as elections approached.  Heitkamp may have misstepped when she voted against Supreme Court candidate Brett Kavanaugh, who was broadly supported in ND.  She may have also alienated some American Indian votes by supporting the Dakota Access pipeline.  With five times Cramer’s campaign money, Heitkamp still lost by nine points.


OIL PRODUCTION AND FLARING
“The Bakken is Back” was a phrase heard over and over again in 2018.  By yearend, every record for oil and gas production was broken.  The economic impact was less than some earlier years because of lower oil prices and less need for new infrastructure.  Unfortunately, flaring also set new records.  Regulators struggled with goals to reduce flaring as they awaited new natural gas processing facilities scheduled to become operational in 2019.

GROWING, YOUNG AND MORE AFFLUENT
In the seven years since 2010, ND has been one of the fastest growing states and ended 2017 with 755,000 residents.  Bismarck and Fargo became the two fastest growing regional cities in the Midwest.  The median age of Nodaks is 35 compared to a national average of 38.  The state’s per capita GDP and household income are higher than similar small states such as South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana.  Small towns outside the Oil Patch continue to lose population — 280 of 360 ND towns and cities lost population in the last 25 years.

 
TRADE DISPUTES ADD TO FARM CRISIS
Prices for farm commodities, particularly soybeans and corn, have been weak for five years and farm incomes have followed.  The crisis became particularly noticeable in 2018, as the stress of continued low incomes forced some farmers to sell equipment and land.  In 2018, trade disputes weakened already anemic grain prices.  U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue acknowledged the trade disputes “could not have come at a worse time” for farmers.  As the year closed, the USDA promised an additional round of payments to farmers and soybean sales to China were picking up.

MINOT HANGOVER
Minot’s economy suffered in 2018 for several reasons: a continuing ag recession, the decline in Canadian shoppers and a lesser role in the oil industry.  Early in the oil boom, Minot prospered by providing infrastructure and services for the Oil Patch.  Williston and Watford City matured, picked up the slack and left Minot holding the bag.  Sales tax and property tax revenues dropped in Minot and squeezed budgets.  As Minot “right-sized,” 1,000 stranded properties went into foreclosure in Ward County.

JOCELYNE AND MONIQUE LAMOUREUX
They are the first born-and-raised Nodaks to win Olympic gold medals.  The Grand Forks twins led the USA to a 3-2 overtime shootout win over Canada.  A San Francisco sportswriter referred to Jocelyne’s winning goal as “the slickest hockey move I’ve ever seen.”

KENNEDY REBOUND
UND President Mark Kennedy had his ups and downs in 2018.  He began the year as the Grand Forks Herald’s “Person of the Year.”  That thought rapidly faded when Kennedy announced he was a finalist for the presidency of the U. of Central Florida.  UND faculty labeled him a “lame duck” and a journalist called him “sleazy.”  He did not get the UCF job and his fortunes worsened when he tangled with Kris Engelstad McGarry, daughter of the late megadonor Ralph Engelstad and president of his foundation.  At that point, Kennedy seemed doomed, but then he patched up matters with McGarry, got a favorable evaluation from the university system chancellor and received further good grades for partnering with the NDSU president to pitch a $100 million research grant.

THE ELUSIVE $100 MILLION
In an unusual collaboration, the presidents of UND and NDSU joined forces to request and sell a $100 million state research grant to be split between their two schools.  It seemed a big bite, but the pair received strong support in the Red River Valley and then teamed to sell the idea of using research to diversify the state’s “oil and soil” economy.  However, when Gov. Burgum’s 2019-21 proposed budget was released, the $100 million was nowhere to be seen.  The presidents hope the Legislature will revive their request in its 2019 session.

UNEXPECTED CONSEQUENCES
Several West Coast states legalized recreational marijuana, but imposed tough licensing and steep taxes on the industry.  As a result, small growers ignored legal markets and sent their products to the Midwest.  I-94 became a major east-west drug corridor and the mules were often Hmong from the Twin Cities.  Arrests on I-94 spiked and large seizures were common.  ND sheriff deputies became adept at spotting likely drug runners, but the courts threw out five arrest cases involving a 1,000 pounds of cannabis, saying the deputies did not have a reasonable basis for making the stops.  The drugs were destroyed and the suspects released.

THE LONG TAIL OF DAPL PROTESTS
The Dakota Access Pipeline protests ended in early 2017, but fallout continued.  In mid-2018, there were still 200 active criminal cases.  Most were found guilty or entered plea agreements.  Chase Iron Eyes, a felon and former ND Democratic candidate for the U.S. House, was one of several high profile defendants who pleaded guilty.  The DAPL protests have become a template for pipeline protests in other states.  Minnesota Indian activist Winona LaDuke vows there will be mass protests and a “Minnesota Standing Rock.”

RUNNERUPS:  Bison football, Voter IDs and the Higher Education Task Force.

 

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