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Gov. Doug Burgum named The Forum's Area Person of the Year

FARGO - When Gov. Doug Burgum is thinking about North Dakota's future, he says everything's on the table - even the possibility of berry-growing operations in the Bakken oil field.More on the berries later. Right now, there's an official announce...

Gubernatorial candidate Doug Burgum speaks during the Republican district convention Jan. 19, 2016, at PRACS in Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
Gubernatorial candidate Doug Burgum speaks during the Republican district convention Jan. 19, 2016, at PRACS in Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
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FARGO - When Gov. Doug Burgum is thinking about North Dakota's future, he says everything's on the table - even the possibility of berry-growing operations in the Bakken oil field.

More on the berries later. Right now, there's an official announcement to make: Burgum is The Forum's 2016 Area Person of the Year.

In past years, the newspaper considered the tech mogul, real estate developer and millionaire philanthropist for Person of the Year because of his work as a change agent in downtown Fargo, restoring many of the city's old buildings.

This time around, it was an easy choice for Forum editors given that Burgum, who had never run for public office before, is now the state's 33rd governor. He added the title after upsetting GOP nominee Wayne Stenehjem in the June primary and handily defeating Democratic and Libertarian candidates in November's general election.

Burgum, who grew up in Arthur, takes office during lean budgetary times. He also steps into the swirling currents of a protest movement to block the Dakota Access oil pipeline. And while he's aware of these immediate issues, he also has his sights on what he calls reinventing government.

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To Burgum, this means questioning the way the state does everything.

"We have to have courageous curiosity," he said. "We can come up with completely new paradigms in how we think about solving society's most pressing problems."

Burgum says this doesn't always require spending more taxpayer funds. "Sometimes more money isn't the answer," he said. "Sometimes a better idea is the answer."

Burgum said he plans to work with heads of state agencies to make government services more efficient and responsive to change. "We want to treat taxpayers like customers," he said. "I think over time people will see a difference in terms of ... how well we listen and how well we respond."

He said part of reinventing government involves officials doing a better job of collecting data and using it to make smarter decisions. "We're making a lot of decisions, in some cases, with no or very poor data."

Another part of it is understanding what's possible with new technology. As one example, he said online distance learning could help rural areas of the state offer more Advanced Placement classes to students.

Commodity rollercoaster

Declines in energy and farm commodity prices have dampened North Dakota's once booming economy. And last year Burgum's predecessor, Gov. Jack Dalrymple, ordered budget cuts amid a severe shortfall in tax revenue.

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Despite the tight fiscal climate, one of Burgum's stated priorities is to balance the budget without increasing taxes. He says this should not be a problem for two reasons: 1) The state constitution requires a balanced budget. 2) The Republican supermajority in the Legislature is unlikely to ask him to sign any bills that raise taxes.

What may be a challenge, he said, is freeing up money to pay for the costs of reinventing government, whatever those may be. But he emphasized that "government isn't always the answer."

"Now that our economy's slowed, we've got to slow the growth rate of the government," he said.

Looking ahead, the governor offered three ideas on how North Dakota can do more to shelter its budget from drastic swings in commodity prices:

• Do a better job of forecasting those prices and ensure forecasts are conservative.

• With the state receiving revenue as an owner of oil and natural gas, it could use financial maneuvers to hedge against potential drops in prices (This would be a new thing for the state).

• Diversify the state's economy.

Burgum said one way to achieve the third step is by adding value to commodities before they leave the state. He gave the example of milling wheat into organic flour. "That organic flour is going to have a much more stable price than the underlying commodity because you've added value to it through the processing," he said.

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Main Street

Burgum said North Dakota should grow and attract industries that can benefit from what's already here, namely abundant energy.

The same way Iceland has tapped its geothermal energy to raise crops year-round and become more self-sufficient in producing food, he said, North Dakota could use the excess natural gas lost to flaring in western North Dakota to heat greenhouses for crops like raspberries and blueberries.

Another way he hopes to strengthen North Dakota's economy is through his Main Street Initiative, an effort to foster vibrant, economically healthy downtowns in cities around the state. "It's not just about great jobs," he said. "It's about great communities."

Burgum said part of the initiative will involve state-funded incentives like the Renaissance Zone program. But it will also be about helping local leaders understand what makes a city thrive, which in Burgum's view is an efficient, walkable urban footprint with mixed-use infill as opposed to single-use sprawl.

One of Burgum's first orders of business on Dec. 15, his first day in office, was to post a YouTube video saying he's in favor of completing the Dakota Access Pipeline. The message came 11 days after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied a permit for an easement to run the pipeline under the Missouri River just north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. The corps' decision was a win for protesters concerned that the pipeline could taint the tribe's drinking water.

"Make no mistake, this infrastructure is good for our economy. And it's the safest way to transport North Dakota products," Burgum said in the video. "Failure to finish it would send a chilling signal to those in any industry who wish to invest in our state and play by the rules."

His support for the pipeline aside, Burgum said he plans to work with tribal leaders to rebuild relationships strained by the protests. "We can honor a conversation around clean water," he said.

Past Person of the Year winners

The Forum Area Person of the Year recognizes someone who sparked changes and discussion that most influenced our area in the past year. The Forum's selections are made by editors. The following are past Person of the Year winners:

2015: Jessica Thomasson, CEO of Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota, because she serves as a lightning rod for criticism of refugee resettlement and leads an agency with great impact on the region.

2014: Sherrie Skuza, widow of Fargo police Lt. Jeff Skuza, whose criticism of the internal investigation of her late husband sparked changes in the department.

2013: Craig Bohl, former North Dakota State University football coach, for leading the team to multiple national titles and bringing national exposure to NDSU.

2012: U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp for her election as North Dakota's first female U.S. senator.

2011: David Berg, American Crystal Sugar CEO, as a main driving force behind a prolonged lockout of sugar workers, personified labor struggles here and elsewhere.

2010: Denny Sanford, whose wealth and vision played major roles in shaping what used to be Fargo MeritCare Medical Center into the region's largest hospital system.

2009: Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker for helping lead the flood fight.

2008: Fargo-Moorhead youths for their many volunteer efforts to better the community.

2007: Tracy Briggs, former WDAY radio personality, for organizing World War II Honor Flights.

2006: Joseph Chapman, then president of North Dakota State University, for leading the school to a higher profile.

Related Topics: DOUG BURGUM
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