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'We can always do better,' Burgum says in first State of the State address

BISMARCK -- Leaning on familiar themes of technological innovation, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum struck an optimistic tone while acknowledging the state's budget challenges during his first State of the State address Tuesday, Jan. 3.

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Chief justice of the North Dakota Supreme Court Gerald VandeWalle, left, administers the oath of office to Governor Doug Burgum on Tuesday in the house chambers. Watching from left are Tom Burgum, 18, first lady Kathryn Helgaas Burgum and Jesse Burgum, 20. Photo by Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK -- Leaning on familiar themes of technological innovation, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum struck an optimistic tone while acknowledging the state’s budget challenges during his first State of the State address Tuesday, Jan. 3.

Burgum’s speech came on the first day of the 2017 legislative session. Lawmakers convened here during a period of hampered revenues due to lower oil and farm commodity prices.

Burgum, a Republican, said his office will offer amendments in the coming weeks to former Gov. Jack Dalrymple’s executive budget for the 2017-19 biennium, which he called a “great start.” He called spending the “root culprit” in the state’s budget woes, and he said state leaders must dig deeper given uncertainty surrounding revenues.

“My leadership team is confident there are many ways we can make government leaner and more efficient so we can better serve the citizens of North Dakota,” he said.

Dalrymple’s budget called for almost $4.8 billion in general fund spending, about $1.2 billion less than what the Legislature appropriated last session. The past year has seen budget cuts and a special session to deal with a revenue shortfall.

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Burgum said the state should examine its budget forecasting systems, arguing the current process doesn’t accurately reflect the link between lower commodity prices and sales tax collections.

While leadership on both sides of the Legislature found things to like in Burgum’s speech, some were left wanting more specifics.

“It was pretty general,” said Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson. “He did say cut (the budget), but I don’t know where.”

Much of the speech was focused on ways to improve government operations and budgetary matters, but Burgum devoted a section of the address to the protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline. He said he supported Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chairman Dave Archambault’s request for the remaining protesters to leave the camp in southern Morton County.

Burgum also said the main protest camp will likely flood in early March, given the amount of snowfall and historic data on the Cannonball River.

“Anything less than a complete restoration of the area prior to the early March flood will endanger the lives of the protesters and of our first responders,” Burgum said. “It will also create an environmental threat to the waters of the Missouri.”

But Burgum also said the dispute over the oil pipeline, which would run near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, should be understood in the context of America’s history with Native Americans.

“This is not an issue that will simply go away after the pipeline is completed,” Burgum said in his 34-minute speech. “Trust has been eroded, and it will take time, effort and leadership to rebuild.”

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To that end, Burgum pledged that his administration would have a “fresh start” in its relations with all tribes and would begin meeting with leaders of each tribe this week.

Other issues, reaction Burgum choked up while talking about a 19-year-old man he encountered in downtown Fargo last month. After his team connected the man to a homeless outreach specialist, Burgum discovered the man, whom he referred to as “Matt,” was addicted to meth and had been arrested for a parole violation.

Many of those incarcerated in North Dakota jails are there for crimes rooted in addiction, Burgum said. He also pointed to growing costs associated with an expanded jail system.

“Jail time without rehab is not a cure for addiction,” Burgum said. “We need to start treating addiction like the chronic disease it is, and by moving these services upstream we will save lives and we will save taxpayer money.”

House Minority Leader Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, said it was “very encouraging” to hear the governor talk about opioid addiction issues in his speech.

“We need to work together to make sure those needs are met, and that North Dakotans feel like they have the resources they need to break addiction and truly live their lives,” he said.

Pointing to the growth of companies such as Uber, Burgum, a software entrepreneur from Fargo, argued technology is driving exponential change in the economy.

“Harnessing these forces can lead to lower costs, and they can lead to better outcomes in health care, in education and in infrastructure,” he said. “And these are the areas that are some of the biggest cost drivers of our state budget.”

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Burgum said North Dakota should find an “off ramp” to remove itself from the property tax buydown system, but said the state shouldn’t shift the burden back to the local political subdivisions. He said his administration “is open to any and all ideas to reform our current system.”

House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, agreed that “reform is important.”

“He didn’t have any specifics on how to do it, but that will be required,” Carlson said. “I’m not yet willing to give up on the 12 percent buydown. We’ll see how that goes as we proceed through the session.”  

Carlson said he wasn’t expecting many specifics from Burgum in his first State of the State address, given that he’s only been in office for a few weeks.

“I think we’ll see more from him probably in the second half of the session,” he said.


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