BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum is touting early progress toward his campaign vow to “reinvent state government,” but the former software executive’s first year in office also was marked by massive pipeline protests, a clash with legislators over vetoes and an admission that he smoked marijuana as a young man.
The Republican took office amid a sharp downturn in tax revenues due to prolonged slumps in oil and agriculture prices in a state where spending had risen more than $8 billion in the past decade.
Through raids on state savings, layoffs and other measures of austerity, Burgum and lawmakers mostly agreed on a $4.3 billion general fund budget for the current two-year budget cycle — and $1.7 billion less than the one passed two years ago.
“We’re not trying to grow government, we’re trying to shrink it,” said Burgum, who has donated his state paycheck for substance abuse initiatives. “We do have some work to do.”
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Burgum’s first few months as governor were spent dealing with the Dakota Access pipeline in southern North Dakota, where nearly 600 people were arrested protesting the four-state, $3.8 billion project that crosses near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.
Burgum promised a “fresh start” with North Dakota’s five federally recognized American Indian tribes. He said he visited with the leadership from each, discussing topics ranging from water issues to tourism.
“State and tribal relations are on a new trajectory,” he said. “There is a new spirit of collaboration that is there.”
The governor began examining the way the state’s higher education system is managed, forming a group he is heading that will over the next year looking improvements to the system that has been marked by turmoil for more than a decade.
“I believe it can be fixed,” said Burgum who expects to push legislation next year to accomplish “transformative change.”
Burgum is known in North Dakota as the godfather of software for building Fargo’s Great Plains Software into a billion-dollar business, which he later sold to Microsoft. He has emphasized technology during his tenure to diversify the state’s economy while rebuilding downtowns across North Dakota to keep and attract workers.
Former GOP Gov. Ed Schafer, also a businessman-turned-politician, gave Burgum high marks for his first-year performance.
“I think he’s done an excellent job as an outsider coming into government for the first time,” said Schafer, who served from 1992 to 2000. “The first session is not one where you are going to knock off a lot of accomplishments.”
Burgum hosted President Donald Trump in September as the president sought support his tax overhaul. He also hosted Vice President Mike Pence in October at North Dakota’s Minot Air Force Base.
“It was really an honor for North Dakota,” Burgum said. Presidents historically have visited a state “in the last year of their second term to check a box” that they went there, he said.
During his campaign for governor, Burgum promised to shake up the “good old boy” party establishment. But the campaign jabs still continue to chafe many in the mostly male and all-white Legislature, and likely hampered progress with Burgum’s policy goals, Schafer said.
“I think the residual from that hurt the governor and he was too cautious and tried to win back their favor,” Schafer said. “It should be a friendly but adversarial relationship and there should be tension — that’s how you get the best product.”
Burgum, however, did not shy away from scraps with lawmakers, and his perceived legislative interference with his management authority. Burgum won a veto fight over salary bonuses for his staff, arguing the legislation improperly infringed on the executive branch.
And earlier this month, the Legislature filed a lawsuit against him setting up a rare state Supreme Court challenge, alleging he overstepped his authority on some vetoes he issued that deleted words or phrases in several spending bills that changed their intent.
Burgum, on his first day as governor, refused to take questions from reporters, and instead referred them to an online video. Burgum has since opened up to the media.
After signing legislation that establishes rules for the use of marijuana as medicine for people, Burgum told reporters at a press conference touting the legislation that he had smoked pot while hitchhiking to Alaska in the summer of 1976. The revelation largely overshadowed the medical marijuana law itself.
Burgum said he didn’t regret sharing his pot story, and marked it up as more proof of his pledge for “transparency.”
Next month, he will deliver his the State of the State speech in Minot, the first such address by a governor in non-legislative session year since former Gov. John Hoeven did so in 2002.
Burgum said he plans to do the addresses annually to “highlight the state’s challenges and successes from the past year” and outline his “vision and agenda for the future.”