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After campaigning on government reinvention, Burgum taking first real crack at North Dakota's budget

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum speaks during the 2018 State of Technology conference on Friday, Nov. 30, 2018, at the Delta Hotels by Marriott in Fargo. David Samson / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — North Dakota state lawmakers are curiously awaiting Gov. Doug Burgum's budget address next week, which will mark the first two-year spending plan the businessman-turned-politician has crafted from scratch since coming into office with a message of government reinvention two years ago.

Burgum will present his proposal to lawmakers Wednesday morning, Dec. 5, in the state House chambers. Lawmakers will be in Bismarck for a three-day organizational session ahead of the next regular session starting in January.

"He has a different perspective that I think all of us should be interested in seeing," said the newly minted House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington.

Burgum, a Republican and former software executive, campaigned on bringing a fresh perspective to budgeting amid a bleak picture of the state’s financial situation. The months leading up his November 2016 election saw widespread cuts and a special legislative session to close a budget gap as the state grappled with reduced revenues blamed on falling oil and farm commodity prices.

In campaign ads, Burgum promised to cut “runaway” spending while balancing the budget without raising taxes.

“We’ll make the tough calls and reinvent state government,” he said in one ad.

Some of candidate Burgum’s rhetoric on spending, which grew sharply during the state’s recent oil boom, irked fellow Republicans who control both the state House and Senate. But longtime Republican state Rep. Bob Martinson of Bismarck said any hard feelings have subsided.

“He’s got a lot of new and different ideas, and he certainly made a lot of campaign promises about reorganization and reinvention,” he said. “And I think this will probably be the first opportunity that we’ve seen them presented in written form, and certainly in a budget.”

The governor's office shared several broad themes from his upcoming address Friday, including a push for a "structurally balanced budget" and efforts to replenish reserve funds. He'll also advocate for spending on behavioral health treatment and information technology.

During an appearance at a technology conference in Fargo on Friday, Burgum said he would propose $30 million to build unmanned aircraft infrastructure using Legacy Fund earnings. The state has pushed the development of the emerging technology in recent years, and Burgum's budget will also call for $3 million to upgrade infrastructure at an existing drone business park near Grand Forks and $3 million for the operations of the state's unmanned aircraft test site.

“These investments will ensure that North Dakota remains America’s proving ground for (unmanned aircraft systems) while also enabling commercial operations, which is good for our economy and taxpayers,” Burgum said in a statement.

But Burgum’s Democratic opponent for governor in the 2016, state Rep. Marvin Nelson, said he hasn’t caught wind of any bold changes in the works under Burgum's budget proposal.

“I actually kind of expect more of the same: Trying to look like it’s a little bit less and calling it reinventing government,” he said.

The state operates on two-year budget cycles known as a biennium. The next biennium will start July 1, after the Legislature has crafted agency budgets and adjourned.

In April, Burgum asked state agencies to craft smaller budgets for the next biennium due in part to reduced reserves. Since then, his office has held 57 "strategy review sessions" with agencies about finding opportunities for collaboration and government efficiency, his spokesman Mike Nowatzki said.

Burgum arrived in office just a few weeks ahead of the 2017 legislative session and offered a spending proposal that lightly trimmed his predecessor Jack Dalrymple’s plan. Lawmakers ultimately passed a $13.6 billion overall budget with $4.3 billion in general fund spending for the current biennium.

Burgum welcomed a rosy revenue forecast in September, but maintained his call for a “conservative approach” to spending. Oil prices have slid recently as budget officials put the finishing touches on Burgum’s proposal, though North Dakota's production soared to record levels in September.

Most details of Burgum’s plan have been kept under wraps. Republican and Democratic leadership will be briefed next week before the address.

“Governors really keep a tight lid on their budgets,” said Martinson, a former House majority leader.

But in an email to state employees sent on the eve of Thanksgiving, Burgum said his budget recommendation “will include both increased salary compensation and increased investment in the state’s outstanding benefits package.” State employees didn’t receive a raise during the current two-year budget cycle.

Top state lawmakers have also signaled their support for employee raises, but how much of Burgum's budget they'll adopt remains to be seen.

Grand Forks Republican Sen. Ray Holmberg, the chairman of his chamber’s budget-writing committee, described a governor’s budget proposal as a “starting point” rather than a step-by-step blueprint for the Legislature to follow.

“The Legislature at the end of the day will do what the Legislature feels is appropriate,” he said. “Because we set the final budget.”

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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