GRAND FORKS — Gov. Doug Burgum delivered his State of the State address Wednesday, Jan. 29, in Grand Forks, sketching a portrait of North Dakota as a growing state — with strong energy and agricultural resources and a young, enthusiastic workforce — positioned well for the years ahead.
After an agricultural slowdown and the end of the most lucrative years of the western oil boom, the state economy is still off its mid-decade peak. But Burgum sought to portray the state's finances as rebounding, pointing out that the budget stabilization fund is expected to hit its cap of over $725 million by the end of the biennium.
"The state of our state today is that it's strong, it's growing and it's full of boundless opportunity," Burgum said. He asked his audience to look past doubts about the state — that it's "too small, too distant, or too cold" to succeed — to "realize our fullest potential."
The speech included few new policy proposals, but provided a summary of the governor's unfolding vision across a wide range of state initiatives — from cleaner coal energy to smarter spending on criminal justice — and asked the state’s residents to imagine a more vibrant North Dakota, with a strong economy and healthy communities where crime is so low that "our police are bored."
Burgum donned a tie for the affair, but kept his trademark jeans as he flicked through slides on a giant screen at Chester Fritz Auditorium on the campus of the University of North Dakota. He often spoke quickly and excitedly, rattling off statistics about the state's energy and agricultural sectors, in a speaking style characteristic of his tech-expert political brand — which, in his own words, is set on "reinventing" state government.
Burgum's remarks began with a nod to the state's growing unmanned aircraft industry, which has a significant presence in Grand Forks. After he began, he paused briefly and said he'd forgotten his remote control for his slideshow presentation. Then, out of the darkness, a small drone emerged to deliver it to the stage.
The first-term Republican returned to the unmanned aircraft industry multiple times during his speech, at one point describing the important counterbalance it can play to the oil and agricultural industries, where slowdowns have had a marked effect on state finances.
"It's not wise to put your eggs in one basket, and in North Dakota, it's not wise to put your eggs in two baskets," Burgum said.
Much of his speech, though, acknowledged the enormous impact the oil and energy industry has had on the state in recent years, underscoring the ways it more broadly contributes to U.S. security and stability.
"This is how you can have a drone strike in Saudi Arabia that takes out five percent of the world's (oil) capacity, and that story is on page eight," Burgum said.
The oil industry has also been a boon to the state Legacy Fund, which is worth nearly $6.8 billion, per the governor’s office. That figure has grown in recent years to represent a tantalizing windfall; during the most recent legislative session, Bismarck leaders considered, but ultimately rejected, a plan to phase out state income taxes with Legacy Fund money.
The move, and others like it, have revealed disagreements about the role the state's premier savings account should play in the state’s financial life, portending political fights over the fund's future expected only to grow louder in coming years — whether for infrastructure or tax relief or any other number of public projects.
Burgum said projects using Legacy Fund dollars will have to pass a high bar. The governor has long been a proponent of spending public dollars as efficiently as possible, a philosophy that in practice often means building projects in downtown urban areas, as opposed to growing urban sprawl.
In the context of the Legacy Fund, Burgum reiterated his interest in projects that can have the maximum impact on the state's economy and development. He's previously described one key rule for spending the money: that it "have lasting impacts beyond our current generation.”
Leaders with the Democratic-NPL expressed skepticism about parts of Burgum’s agenda. In a statement and press conference following Burgum’s remarks, Sen. Minority Leader Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford, asked why the governor doesn’t have a clear, long-lasting tax plan in place, and expressed concerns about North Dakota’s most vulnerable, including students struggling with school lunch debt and rural residents seeking access to grocery stores.
"We can lift families out of poverty. We can address many of our issues when it comes to literacy rates (and) graduation rates. We want to work with the governor, but it looks like the governor has a lot of work within his own party,” House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, said moments later, alluding to tensions between the governor and the GOP’s legislative caucus.
GOP leaders, though, declined to go into much detail about disagreements between the governor’s office and party legislators. Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, praised the governor’s vision of a state that’s rebounding from financial difficulty. Asked about the governor’s vision for the future of the Legacy Fund, Wardner said “we have met and we have discussed it.”
“I think we’re pretty close to our philosophy on the Legacy Fund,” he said. “We wanted this to invest in the future of the state, and, of course, there’s a lot of areas that we’re working on.”
House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, discussed the governor’s unique style, but praised the new kinds of thinking Burgum has brought to Bismarck, like his unique focus on urban development initiatives.
"I've been in this legislative arena for 21 years, and you kind of sit doing things a certain way. The governor coming in has brought a different perspective,” Pollert said. “It's brought a different paradigm. … He's doing things differently. And I think for us to take a look at that is a good idea."
Burgum ended his speech with an argument on behalf of his administration's momentum. The state's population is growing, as is oil production, and he painted an optimistic picture of where the state can head next.
"We have all these resources, and we're a nimble state. … Imagine a North Dakota where all 30,000 (open) jobs are filled,” he said. "Let's imagine a day when we've got vibrant, safe and welcoming communities. … Imagine cities so safe that our police are bored.”