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Bismarck isn’t sinking

The economic wise men gathering around President-elect Obama in Chicago will be heading to Washington next month to try to jump-start the faltering U.S. economy.

They may want to take a side trip to Fargo first.

According to a front-page report in Saturday’s New York Times, thus far the state economy in North Dakota has been immune to the downward pull of the recession that is gripping the rest of the country, wiping out more than 530,000 jobs nationwide last month.

Homes are still gaining in value in Fargo, and auto sales statewide jumped 27 percent this year. While most of the other 49 states are desperately trying to scotch-tape fiscal patches over gaping deficits in their budgets, lawmakers in Bismarck will have a much more pleasant task this week — they’ll be debating what to do with North Dakota’s $1.2 billion surplus, an incredible bounty for a state whose current two-year budget totals less than $8 billion.

According to the Times report, North Dakota’s good fortune can be attributed to a collection of factors, including a recent surge in oil production that vaulted the state into fifth place nationwide in that category; a good year for farmers (agriculture is the state’s largest business); and a conservative banking culture that apparently didn’t get sucked into the vortex of bad loans that has proven catastrophic to financial institutions in other regions.

So, for now at least, the biggest economic problem in North Dakota is a shortage of workers. The state has about 13,000 unfilled high-skill positions. Not surprisingly, it is focusing its recruiting efforts in states that are in the process of chopping jobs. One employer in the hunt for high-tech workers is Microsoft, which is in the midst of a $70-million building expansion at its Fargo campus.

North Dakota is one of the least populous states, with 635,867 residents. It’s recent good fortune apparently hasn’t reversed the trend detected in the latest census, which showed more people moving away than moving into the state.

ÒOur problem is that everybody thinks that it’s a cold, miserable place to live. They’re wrong, of course. But North Dakota is a well-kept secret, Bob Stenehjem, the State Senate majority leader, told the Times.

Dakotans aren’t getting giddy about their current good fortune — they are keeping vigilant for signs of an encroaching downturn, officials said.

So while the current economic environment up north is living up to one state nickname — ”the Peace Garden State” — the folks in North Dakota say that if the economic gloom eventually crosses their border they are prepared to embody one of their other state monikers: ”the Roughrider State.”

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