Berg’s latest town hall sparks crossfire over budget, taxes

FARGO – Divided economic philosophies inflamed a tense town hall meeting here Thursday night with North Dakota Republican Rep. Rick Berg.

Some 200 area residents gathered to hear Berg answer for his political positions in Congress and to voice their own opinions on how to fix the nation’s fiscal situation.

Given the recent economic volatility, the federal government’s near-default and Congress’ subsequent debt package to avert it dominated much of the open-floor meeting.

North Dakota Rep. Rick Berg addresses the audience at his town hall meeting Thursday, Aug. 11, 2011, at Longfellow Elementary in north Fargo. David Samson / The Forum

Many residents disliked Berg’s support of the debt package because it failed to reduce long-term spending and to begin cutting the deficit.

That deal, passed nearly two weeks ago, raised the nation’s debt ceiling in trade for equal spending cuts – while requiring a special committee of Congress to determine more than $1.5 trillion in additional spending cuts before December.

Berg said he voted for the package because of one provision added in the final hours of debate: a requirement that both houses of Congress vote on a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Berg said he believes it “is the one thing out there that can get our country back on track.”

However, several residents criticized Berg’s position, saying the amendment won’t solve immediate problems – like getting unemployed Americans back to work.

“The balanced budget amendment is like trying to drain a lake to save a drowning person,” West Fargo resident Darrel Lund said. “People are in trouble now.”

Lund said Congress ought to have just raised the debt ceiling as they were tasked to do, instead of adding to the problem through political deadlock.

“That’s what’s caused uncertainty – that Congress can’t even do one thing,” Lund said to applause. “They had to make a political statement.”

North Dakota Rep. Rick Berg speaks to the crowd at his town hall meeting Thursday, Aug. 11, 2011, at Longfellow Elementary in north Fargo. David Samson / The Forum

Whether to raise taxes sparked the most volatile debate of the evening.

Early on, Berg asked if the audience believed raising taxes would help the struggling economy.

The people responded with a divided ruckus of yes’ and no’s, making for a very tense moment among the crowd and setting the town for the evening.

Berg is firmly against tax increases of any kind – but many attending Thursday’s meeting openly disagreed with his stance.

Berg is the only North Dakota member of Congress to sign the controversial pledge by ultra-conservative Grover Norquist and the Americans for Tax Reform. The pledge is to oppose tax increases – including cuts to tax exemptions.

Several residents grilled Berg for signing the pledge and for his refusal to consider tax increases, specifically for the wealthiest Americans, like him.

(Berg, a former Fargo businessman, is a senior vice president in the commercial branch of the regional real estate company, Goldmark. He was also among the wealthiest freshmen House members, with an estimated value of of $39.2 million.)

“You work for North Dakota residents, not some guy from another state,” West Fargo resident Don Frost said.

Berg defended his signature, saying he made the pledge to support the people of North Dakota.

He also said he signed it before he even ran for Congress 18 months ago. At that time, Berg was a longtime Fargo legislator.

“I firmly believe that raising taxes is going to have a negative drag on our economy,” Berg said.

Meanwhile, several fiscal conservatives in the audience defended Berg and said they opposed tax increases for the rich.

Some, like Valley City resident Margi Schmidt, asked why the poorest Americans aren’t made to pay taxes, too, which would raise federal revenues without increasing taxes on others.

Schmidt shared how she worked her way through college – without federal aid – to become successful and wealthy in her career.

“I’m the face of the evil rich. I’m the face of the person who’s going to be hit with those increased taxes,” she said. “What happens to the 51 percent of Americans who don’t pay taxes? Why do I have to support them with all the hours I work?”

Several agreed with Schmidt, urging personal responsibility over reliance on the government.

“Those of you complaining about the rich, you had the same opportunities they had to become rich. You’re choosing not to,” West Fargo resident J.D. Hoffner said.

“We still live in the land of opportunity,” Hoffner added. “You’re choosing not to take advantage of those opportunities. It’s very simple.”

Other topics of the town hall included the effect of the Bush-era tax incentives, how spending cuts might impact core programs like Medicare, and whether businesses should be promoted as “job-creators” through tax breaks.

Unlike Berg’s first town hall in Fargo last spring, Thursday’s event had a much less-organized feel – as many residents opted to shout out their comments, rather than wait for a turn at the microphone.

Because of that, Berg was forced many times throughout the two-hour meeting to interject and extinguish potential shouting matches among the crowd and with himself.

During the past two weeks, Berg held five other town halls across North Dakota.

The Fargo event drew, by far, the largest crowd, but it also had the same tension as events in Bismarck and in Grand Forks this week.