Once again, the priorities of North Dakota’s Emergency Commission must be questioned. The Commission, chaired by Governor Doug Burgum, was tasked with distributing the $1.25 billion in federal CARES Act relief. Without public input, the six-man Commission made spending decisions one can argue missed the intent of the CARES Act. The latest example is how a program to assist front-line workers was short-changed.

The Medical Expense Assistance Program (MEAP) was created to provide financial relief for front-line health care workers and first responders if they had tested positive for COVID-19. It was intended to help those who have helped so many during the pandemic. A great concept that met the spirit of the CARES Act.

Unfortunately, the Commission didn’t set aside enough CARES Act money to take care of first responders. The Department of Commerce tasked with administering MEAP has reportedly halted the program. The state wasn’t anticipating the number of front-line worker applications they’d receive. According to the Fargo Forum report, “The department said it stopped taking applications because it’s anticipated the number of applications received will use up the entire $2.5 million. The program will be reinstated if more federal pandemic stimulus funds are provided, according to the department.”

Compare the short-changed $2.5 million relief for first responders to the $16 million provided to oil companies to reimburse part of the cost of fracking wells. Quite the contrast. The legality of the state spending $16 million on fracking has been questioned by advocacy groups. Two groups, the Dakota Resource Council and North Dakotans for Public Integrity, “allege the state is violating the North Dakota Constitution’s “anti-gift” clause by giving the money to oil companies.”

This situation – where oil companies are taken care of better than front-line health care workers -can be attributed to the short-sighted approach that lacked robust input in North Dakota. Rather than gathering information and guidance from stakeholders, six-men gathered in Bismarck and made questionable decisions on how to spend $1.25 billion. It appears they missed the mark. Now, they wait patiently as Congress slow-walks another round of federal relief. To avoid a repeat, the Legislature needs to deal themselves a hand in the appropriation process and consider changes for when they are not in session.

Tyler Axness
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