State-run banks: a movement driven by unusual politics

  • The Bank of North Dakota’s headquarters in Bismarck.

    Bank of North Dakota
 

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"You hear that giant sucking sound?" read a flier circulated by the Service Employees International Union in Oregon in 2011. "That's Wall Street's big banks sucking up all the public dollars out of Oregon. (The state) does billions of dollars of business with big banks like Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, and Wells Fargo ... And what do we have to show for it? 28,000 homes in foreclosure, 10.6% unemployment, and devastating cuts to vital services."

In North Dakota, however, the BND has been "ramping up its lending, particularly to small businesses," says Sam Munger, director of the Center for State Innovation, a Wisconsin-based think tank. Some advocates even claim the BND is driving North Dakota's 3 percent unemployment rate –– the lowest in the country.

Skeptics say such claims are overblown. The Federal Reserve in a 2011 report said that the BND's "contributions to stabilizing the state economy and finances appear to have been relatively minor." It attributes North Dakota's resilience to the relative stability of its agriculture, coupled with the Bakken oil boom, which since 2010 has pumped more than $535 million into the state's oil tax "Legacy Fund."

On the ground, though, the BND is at the center of the Bakken action, helping to leverage local sales taxes into funding for small businesses, as well as for much-needed multi-family affordable housing and new infrastructure. The boomtowns still have serious problems; but even if the BND is not a cure-all for North Dakota, says Munger, that shouldn't dampen efforts to establish more state-owned banks. The concept is, above all, "a rational way for states to organize their finances."

Corporate-bank lobbying, including by bankers' associations in several states, has stalled efforts to create more state banks, but that's not the only obstacle. In Washington state, bills seeking to study the issue as well as create a BND-style Washington Investment Trust were backed by dozens of co-sponsors, but attracted little Republican support. State Treasurer Jim McIntire, a Democrat, helped administer the coup de grâce, claiming that a state bank in Washington -- which lacks North Dakota's budget surplus -- could bind up state funds in loans and burden taxpayers in the event of economic downturn. There were also legal conflicts with that state's Constitution.

In Oregon, a bipartisan push to create a brick-and-mortar state bank morphed into proposals for a "virtual" state bank, then into the Oregon Investment Act. That bill passed last April with support from Oregon's state treasurer and governor. It doesn't create an Oregon state bank, but it carries out the spirit by consolidating and expanding state loan programs.

In both Colorado and Montana, state-bank advocates haven't hammered out details and the politics continue to shift. Barnewall claims that "a state bank makes it possible for a state to issue its own currency," if the Federal Reserve system collapses; Bows would like to create additional public banks that would be even more local, run by county governments. Read was defeated in his bid for re-election in November, so his thinking that the Last Chance State Bank would invest in coal, timber and oil is somewhat moot. Malek, who was re-elected, thinks a state bank could help small towns in eastern Montana diversify their Main Street economies and survive the sooner-or-later end of the oil-drilling era.

The fundamental benefits of state banks may be more subtle: The Bank of North Dakota "refinances whenever there's a flood, a blight, low crop prices," says Bows. "Basically, they've kept people in their businesses and on their land. One thing that people don't talk about much is the effect on the social fabric."

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