By Elise Viebeck - 10/31/11 10:13 AM EDT
Rep. Rick Berg (R-N.D.) thinks what worked in his state can work for the country as a whole.
North Dakota has a 3.3 percent unemployment rate, the lowest in the United States, and a nearly $1 billion budget surplus.
“We have 18,000 jobs looking for people,” Berg recently told The Hill. “If our country’s GDP grew at 7 percent, as it does in the state, most of our problems would be over in two years.
The seeming paradox of the state’s economic success — flying high as other Americans fear a second dip in the recession — is no surprise to Berg, who went to the state house in 1985, and served until he was elected to Congress last year.
“After the dot-com bubble, the state had a deficit,” he said. “We were in the bottom half of the country in terms of our business cli- mate. So about 10 years ago, we said,‘We’re going to tighten our belts ... and encourage private-sector jobs.’”
“We probably didn’t know all the details about how to make it happen, but that was our focus, and it transformed our state,” he said.
For the Republican-controlled legislature, this meant cutting corporate taxes, balancing the budget and setting aside 10 percent of state revenues in a rainy-day fund.
It also meant deregulating several industries, or as Berg puts it, “getting rid of barriers that didn’t have any common sense.”
He hopes to encourage similar practices at the federal level with his Helping Innovation of Re-Employment Services in States (HIRES) Act, now in committee. The bill would permit states to test their own re-employment programs in agreement with the federal Labor Department.
Berg said legislatures must embrace long-term, visionary thinking. "Typically, you have a governor or a president ... articulating the big goals, saying, 'We're not going to put a man on the moon.’ Then you have a legislature that’s representing its own interests.
“One of the biggest compliments I ever got in our legislature was ... that the opposite was happening in North Dakota.”
In North Dakota, one beneficiary of change was the energy sector, which, thanks to new technology, has exploded in recent years to make the state the fourth-largest oil producer in the country.
Its oil-rich Bakken formation,which stretches into Montana and the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, was discovered in 1951, but remained largely inaccessible until recent advances in hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” provided the right technology.
The Bakken formation is now considered the largest contiguous crude deposit in the continental United States, and contains an estimated 24 billion barrels of recoverable oil.
That prospect has energy firms flocking from around the world, ready to hire the many new North Dakotans now living in hotels, camp grounds and even parking lots as local home construction catches up. “Here ... we’ve seen the tremendous potential of our natural resources,” Berg said in a recent YouTube video. “Imagine the jobs that could be created if we encourage energy production in all parts of the country.”
The boom has been felt in other sectors too: A fast-food worker in Williston, in the oil patch, now reportedly makes $15 per hour.
It’s North Dakota’s can-do spirit, Berg argues, that makes local hires reliable and at- tractive to companies such as Microsoft and Amazon,which have set up shop in the state.
He boasted that a payroll firm in Fargo, the state's largest city, handles Microsoft checks at $1.99 a piece, compared with the $5 proposed by a company in India.
"People here have a lot of responsibility from and early age," he said. "When someone is out plowing the field with their father in a $100,000 tractor and it breaks down, they don't just walk home and turn on the TV."
Berg - who notes that he has never been in a legislative minority - is running to succeed retiring Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) in 2012, and is highly favored to win the race.
“I hope I bring a majority, and I hope I can be someone who can be a bridge between the House and the Senate,”he said.
His election could make him the first member of the 2010 House freshman class to move to the upper chamber.
Unlike some of his fellow newcomers, he has largely voted with the House’s establishment GOP players, prompting the Club for Growth to pooh-pooh his potential Senate candidacy in April, before he announced that he would run.
Those less-stringent votes will apparently not be a problem in his state, however: the North Dakota Tea Party Caucus embraced him 52.6 percent to 43.9 percent in a recent poll over rival Duane Sand, a former Naval officer who has worked for the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity.
Berg also has more than $1 million cash on hand to Sand’s $63,757 in campaign funds.
The race still has no Democrat, though former state attorney general Heidi Heitkamp said recently she’s considering a bid.