The Bismarck Tribune
By Nick Smith
Addressing historic protests, putting together a team and learning how to navigate a legislative session: Gov. Doug Burgum, who inherited a budget marked by the largest cuts in modern state history, more than had his plate full when he took office.
“We’re feeling really good about where we are,” Gov. Doug Burgum told the Tribune editorial board this week as he can now look at his first session from a rearview mirror. “Now, we get a chance to go to work.”
Coming in, he didn’t expect the response to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests to consume his days as it did. Dealing with that environmental movement added to what was already a sharp learning curve, he said.
In an early move, Burgum replaced six members of his cabinet. Those he picked for the various spots were selected to “not just lead an agency … but (be) able to work across lines” and interact with other agencies to find efficiencies.
“For me, it’s always about the innovation, not the budget,” said Burgum, looking back to his years as a software company executive. “It’s a focus on outputs, not inputs.”
While Burgum inherited the previous governor’s budget, lawmakers did get a taste of what’s to come.
“It was interesting and refreshing to see new ideas,” said Rep. Todd Porter, R-Mandan, adding that the $13.6 billion budget package, including a $1.7 billion reduction in spending, was a solid starting point for the new governor to institute change.
That injection of new ideas will become more apparent when he does craft his first full budget, according to Sen. Diane Larson, R-Bismarck, who expects Burgum to be more visible as he gathers feedback and makes his case for various initiatives.
“My thinking is that what he’ll do is he’d be more engaged up front before the session,” Larson said.
Encountering the governor
Sen. Dwight Cook, R-Mandan, said his encounters with Burgum have been positive.
“I think he’s going to be just fine. He’s going to be a little smarter. He’s a fast learner,” Cook said.
Nevertheless, pathways for change, especially in the areas of corrections and education, were implemented during the past session. Burgum pointed to $7 million in the corrections budget that is earmarked for implementing a community behavioral health program in the state.
When considering the cost of providing treatment for addiction or other needs is a fraction of the cost of incarcerating a person for a year, Burgum said: “To move $7 million upstream is a big deal” in making a dent in justice reinvestment.
He said Senate Bill 2186, an education innovation bill, could yield significant dividends as well. SB2186 allows school districts more flexibility in programming. Schools can seek waivers through the Department of Public Instruction for the introduction of innovative programs to improve the delivery and administration of education.
Burgum for months has been touting the need for more vibrant, livable communities through what he tags his Main Street Initiative. He’s calling for more efficient urban infrastructure to do away with sprawl while creating more lively downtown areas that will attract a modern workforce. Details will be forthcoming in the months ahead, he said.
Tackling the job
House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, praised Burgum’s willingness to let the Legislature do its job and expressed appreciation for offers of help in moving agendas forward.
“I think he is a giant sponge sucking up this information, and that’s good, because he wants to reinvent government and so do we,” Carlson said.
Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, echoed Carlson’s statements.
Wardner said Burgum expressed his preference for a few issues such as a proposed tax on medical providers as well as having state employees pay 5 percent of health care costs, among a few other topics. Otherwise, he was fairly hands-off until there were vetoes he chose to issue, he said.
“I expect him to bring proposals forward to make things different,” Wardner said of the 2019 session and budget cycle.