GRAND FORKS — North Dakota may be well-positioned in a post-pandemic economy, Gov. Doug Burgum says.
“I have an enormous sense of optimism about North Dakota and its position relative to other states coming out of the pandemic,” Burgum told the Grand Forks Herald’s editorial board Thursday, May 13.
The state was able to keep its schools and its economy mostly open during the last 14 months, he said. Additionally, keeping general fund spending in check and being smart with investments, along with added federal COVID relief dollars, means North Dakota may be in better shape economically than other states.
“We're finishing ahead of revenue,” he said. “We've finished with a record ending balance because we were able to displace spending with federal dollars that came in. … We are poised for the economy to grow.”
Stimulus packages signed into law by former President Donald Trump gave millions of dollars to K-12 schools, the health care system and higher education, Burgum noted. Additionally, he said the state has yet to touch another $1 billion it received from President Joe Biden’s stimulus package that was approved in March.
“We're just in great shape right now with the budget," he said. "That sets us up for, I think, really strong success in the future."
The state was able to make investments in education and pass a record bonding bill during the recently adjourned legislative session, Burgum said.
The massive $680 million bonding bill makes investments in state infrastructure loans and dollars for specific projects in the state, including: $435.5 million for the Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion project, $74.5 million for a Minot area flood-control project, $70 million for highway repairs, $50 million for infrastructure loans to cities and counties and $50 million for renovations on Harris Hall, a North Dakota State University agriculture building.
The bonding bill comes during a time of lower interest rates and rising inflation rates that could make infrastructure projects more expensive in years to come.
Of the 2021-23 general fund ongoing expenses of $4.879 billion, about 32% is going to the school aid formula, 32% to Medicaid and 11% to the higher education formula. The remaining 35% is for all other expenses, according to a chart provided by Burgum’s office.
Revenue forecasts through much of last year were murky. North Dakota had a 28% drop in GDP between the first and second quarters last year; Burgum said the budgeting team at the Office of Management and Budget had “the most difficult forecasting environment ever.”
In the middle of the planning process for the budget, oil prices dropped to zero, and even for a very short period fell into the negatives, which meant agencies were poised to take a cut.
“It wasn't like we had a black swan event with COVID. We had a flock of black swans land on our state last year,” Burgum said, adding that the state also dealt with flooding in 2020 and is now dealing with wildfires throughout North Dakota.
Burgum applauded the work of state employees over the last year, whether they were working at testing events, dealing with vaccine rollout or any number of other jobs. Additionally, thousands of state employees began working remotely nearly overnight at the start of the pandemic, he said.
“Human Services, Department of Health, I can go on and on about the heroes in state government that have done amazing work in the past year,” Burgum said. “It is incredible what people have done. Our National Guardsmen have been on their longest deployment ever in the history of the state. And whether it was testing or vaccinations or cleaning nursing homes, the work that state employees has done has been remarkable.”