A hundred years ago the region that is now NRW was the industrial heartland of Germany. Even after the Second World War, mining in the Ruhr region played an important part in putting a defeated Germany back on its feet.
But decline of the coal industry since the 1960s has had a damaging effect on the region's economy, leaving it with some of the highest unemployment and crime rates in the country.
Minister President Hannelore Kraft, a Social Democrat, has invested heavily in education since taking power in 2010. But a public debt of €179.6 billion lays bare the challenge that she or rival Armin Laschet of the Christian Democrats will face in the next legislative period.
But the picture is not so gloomy when one looks at public debt per inhabitant. The city states of Berlin, Hamburg and Bremen all have higher debts per person than Germany's most populous state, as does the small southwestern state of Saarland.
But NRW’s €13,285 of debt per head is still far higher than Baden-Württemberg’s €5,685.
On the plus side, NRW announced in January that last year it took on no new public debts for the first time since 1972.