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Lincoln is now king of the hill — toppling my second hometown, Bismarck

Bismarck, North Dakota, is kind of like my second hometown. I went to college there, my parents and brother live there, my sister lives there, my favorite friend lives there, I started my journalism career there and held several positions in the newsroom there.

So when Bismarck is in the news, I notice. And Bismarck has been in the news a lot over the past few years, most often for having the lowest unemployment rate in the nation. My home state of North Dakota, in fact, made the news often during the Great Recession, because it seemed immune to the economic travails being experienced nearly everywhere else. According to the New York Times, it is the only state that didn’t have a budget shortfall in the past four years.

In fact, the state is expected to end the fiscal year with a $1 billion surplus. Lawmakers aren’t arguing over what to cut, they’re arguing over what to spend the money on.

Whenever I read about North Dakota’s huge cushion of cash, it brings back memories of sitting at a press conference in the state capitol about 10 years ago, listening to the Republicans warn that the state was headed for a huge budget deficit if it didn’t start cutting the budget and blah, blah, blah. They didn’t know then that the oil patch in western North Dakota was going to spring back to life in the already energy-rich state thanks to a lovely thing called the Bakken Formation — which stretches from Canada to my in-laws homeland in the Williston Basin to Montana and Wyoming. They’re saying this oil patch has 11 billion barrels of oil, which would make North Dakota the second-most prolific oil producing state.

Some believe there’s more oil in that thar shale than in Saudi Arabia.

My own hometown of Bowman, N.D., experienced an oil boom in the 1970s, and then an oil bust. But the oil rigs are back, and they’re drilling, baby. Unfortunately, I don’t own any land or mineral rights there.

The oil, and the fact that North Dakota — like Nebraska — never had a housing bubble, is the reason the recession seems to have skipped over the state.

So the news today that Lincoln’s jobless rate squeaked even lower than good ol’ Bismarck’s is incredibly good news indeed. One of my more critical readers asked why I didn’t write about that, and give Mayor Chris Beutler his due. I’m not sure Beutler has as much to do with the unemployment rate as the fact that Lincoln also has a stable housing market (no bubbles here) and is home to the state capitol and a major university, but, hey, who’s keeping track? Yay Lincoln!


Spatz to announce re-election plans Tuesday

Councilman John Spatz has scheduled a news conference for Tuesday to “announce his intentions regarding his re-election.”

Councilman John Spatz

“It is an honor to serve the people of Lincoln,” Spatz said in a press release. “The city of Lincoln deserves strong leadership as we look out upon another challenging budget.”

The press conference will be held at the Nebraska Association of School Board’s conference room, 1311 Stockwell Ave.

Spatz was first elected to the Lincoln City Council in 2007, representing District 4, which is northwest Lincoln and includes the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, airport, downtown and Haymarket. So far, nobody else has announced plans to run in that district.


JPA letter obfuscates arena transparency problems

After several days of bad publicity, the city’s arena JPA finally responded to the criticism with a letter to the Journal Star yesterday. Although given that the three JPA members aren’t legally allowed to meet privately — because it’s a violation of their bylaws — I’m not sure how they got together to write the letter.

Perhaps someone wrote it for them?

But anyway.

Let’s get into the meat of the issue: As I’ve written before, the arena JPA has taken a troubling turn lately, allowing its general contractor, Mortenson Construction of Minnesota, to skip using the city’s purchasing process to choose most of its subcontractors. Mortenson has argued that it needs to have this flexibility to get the project done on time and under budget.

Problem is, they’re not doing it the way the city specified when it solicited bids from companies nationwide.

Trivial, I know. Unless you’re one of the other bidders.

Now the JPA (that’s Mayor Chris Beutler, Councilwoman Jayne Snyder and Nebraska Regent Tim Clare) is defending its decision to go ahead and approve the pre-construction contract, despite its less-than-transparent features. They argued in their letter that the city’s electronic bidding process (e-bid) wouldn’t allow Mortenson to steer contracts to Lincoln businesses, because they would have to take the lowest bid.

Not so: It’s not the e-bid computer system that prohibits them from playing favorites for local companies — it’s the city charter. However, the city doesn’t have to take the low bid if the company doesn’t meet specifications — and those specifications can include all the “important factors” (like their safety record or experience) the JPA said Mortenson needed to be able to evaluate in choosing subcontractors.

They also said e-bid wouldn’t allow Mortenson to force subs to “sharpen their pencils” to find additional savings after bids are submitted — but that also opens the door to wheeling and dealing with their preferred sub to make sure they get the job.
The JPA did acknowledge the validity of “the concern about transparency” — but claimed the amendments they adopted would bring some transparency to the process. However, seeing scorecards and names of bidders does not eliminate the fact that the public STILL WILL NOT BE ABLE TO SEE THE ACTUAL BIDS.

This kind of secrecy and shrouding got Mortenson in trouble in Kentucky, and it may just get them crossways with contractors here, too, if the JPA continues to allow Mortenson to run roughshod.

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