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Burgum: North Dakota's budget future is not 'risk-free'

Gov. Doug Burgum gives his State of the State address, sponsored by Greater North Dakota Chamber, on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018, in Minot, N.D. Kim Fundingsland / Minot Daily News1 / 2
Gov. Doug Burgum gives his State of the State address, sponsored by Greater North Dakota Chamber, on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018, in Minot, N.D. Kim Fundingsland / Minot Daily News2 / 2

MINOT, N.D.—Gov. Doug Burgum painted an optimistic portrait of North Dakota's future during his second State of the State address Tuesday, Jan. 23, but warned budget challenges remain.

Speaking at Minot State University, Burgum recapped his first year in office and pointed to the road ahead in a nearly 90-minute speech that emphasized themes of reinventing government over specific policy proposals.

The Republican governor is less than a year removed from the end of his first legislative session in which lawmakers slashed general fund spending by more than 28 percent after falling oil and farm commodity prices helped force budget cuts under Burgum's predecessor. Burgum said the state's economy is showing signs of rebounding but noted policymakers tapped reserve funds when revenues dropped.

"We're not risk-free," Burgum said. He said there's "more work ahead" on balancing the state's budget.

Burgum said he's not in favor of tapping the principal of the voter-approved Legacy Fund. He said the interest should be used to "transform what we're doing, not just fund basic ... services and operations of government." Lawmakers set aside $200 million in Legacy Fund earnings for this two-year budget cycle.

"We may have to use this again to get us through this period of time where we're just using it to fund government," Burgum said.

Burgum didn't address the ongoing legal battle with the Legislature over several partial vetoes he issued after last year's session, but he thanked lawmakers in attendance, along with state Supreme Court justices, statewide elected officials and tribal leaders.

"Governing is a team effort," Burgum said.

Burgum recapped efforts to resolve the Dakota Access Pipeline protests and to aid farmers and ranchers affected by last year's drought. He touted connections made with officials in President Donald Trump's Cabinet and highlighted last year's visits from the president and Vice President Mike Pence.

Burgum said he would tour all 11 of North Dakota's public colleges and universities this year, an announcement that comes less than two weeks after he convened the first meeting of a task force examining the structure of North Dakota's higher education system.

Tuesday's event was sponsored by the Greater North Dakota Chamber, which will cover the costs of production and the reception afterward, Burgum's spokesman Mike Nowatzki said.

Nowatzki said the last governor to give the State of the State address in a year when the Legislature wasn't in session was John Hoeven in 2002. Burgum plans to do one every off-year in a different community, Nowatzki said.

With a microphone clipped to his tie, Burgum stepped out from behind a podium, relied on notes instead of adhering to a script and used visual aids to help make his points.  He choked up multiple times during his speech, including once while mentioning drug overdose deaths.

Burgum leaned on themes of technological advancements, a familiar staple for the former software executive. He touched on various efforts undertaken on his watch, including the Main Street Initiative and Native American tribal engagement, along with programs aimed at reducing traffic deaths and addressing addiction issues.

State Rep. Ron Guggisberg, a Fargo Democrat who gave his party's official response to the speech, said behavioral health care in North Dakota is in a "crisis" and lawmakers failed to address it last year.

Guggisberg, who said he wasn't able to listen to Burgum's speech, blamed Republicans in the majority for mishandling the state's budget and warned that North Dakotans will see property tax increases. But Burgum said the state is doing more than ever to keep property taxes down and put the onus on local officials who levy them.

Burgum said North Dakotans have prided themselves on being able to endure struggles, but the state's future is "not some paved super freeway."

"We have to add to that, that we're also the state that knows how to innovate, we know how to learn and we know how to lead," he said.

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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