By Doug Burgum
BISMARCK—As North Dakotans, we have always been an aspirational people. We see beauty and opportunity where many don’t. We dream big and work hard.
Yet when our administration assumed office on Dec. 15, we were facing fiscal challenges and civil unrest of historic proportions.
A massive revenue shortfall of $1.5 billion exhausted our savings and forced significant budget cuts for the next biennium.
But as Albert Einstein said, “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”
We seized it, dedicating more time and resources to improving dialogue and using a collaborative response to bring the Dakota Access Pipeline situation to a peaceful end, with the last protesters leaving the camps on our 76th day in office. This gave us the time to remove the 21 million pounds of debris left by protesters and avoid an environmental calamity.
While such a colossal effort consumed much time, our office remained fully engaged in the legislative session, working hard to balance the budget through sensible reductions, limited use of reserves and new initiatives designed to streamline state government.
Working in tandem with the Republican-led Legislature, we downsized the general fund by a whopping $1.7 billion, or more than 28 percent. Not since the Dust Bowl have North Dakotans seen their state’s day-to-day operating fund shrink by such magnitude.
We accomplished this without touching the principal of the voter-approved Legacy Fund and while maintaining $2.3 billion of financial support for K-12 education. Most notably, the state will provide more, not less, property tax relief in the next biennium.
We’ll do so through a $154 million increase in K-12 property tax relief and by assuming the full cost of federally and state-mandated social services previously charged to counties. This raises the state’s social services funding support from $23 million to $161 million while removing an unfair and unfunded financial mandate on our 53 counties.
The net result is a $50 million increase in state funding to offset local property taxes—a commitment that, given our budget and revenue situation, is nothing short of remarkable.
Simply put, the state is doing its part and more. It’s now incumbent on elected officials at the city, county and school district levels to follow the state’s lead and make property tax relief a priority, ensuring that increased property assessment values do not arbitrarily result in higher tax burdens.
In this way, we can ensure economic sustainability for our communities while simultaneously attracting a workforce to fill the nearly 15,000 open jobs in North Dakota.
On the campaign trail, I made a commitment to innovation and reinventing government. We are taking bold steps to challenge the status quo, despite our fiscal limitations.
For example, we’re redirecting $7 million from corrections to substance abuse treatment, recognizing that it’s more expensive to incarcerate than to treat addiction like the chronic disease it is.
This shift represents a huge philosophical change in keeping with the state’s justice reinvestment initiative.
The aptly nicknamed “innovative education” bill opens the door for teachers and school boards to make local decisions to better shape educational delivery to meet the needs of the 21st century.
With budgets now set, we can fully focus our administration on reinventing government and improving services for the citizens of North Dakota.
Even with leaner budgets, every state agency can focus on innovation and doing more with less.
With this challenging session behind us, we stand ready to tackle the next challenge. Our future has never been brighter.