ND governor candidates spar over the term 'deficit'
GRAND FORKS-Political campaigns can often be described as a war of words.In the race for the North Dakota governor's office, it seems one word has already received some debate: deficit.An ad for Fargo businessman and Republican candidate Doug Bur...
GRAND FORKS-Political campaigns can often be described as a war of words.
In the race for the North Dakota governor's office, it seems one word has already received some debate: deficit.
An ad for Fargo businessman and Republican candidate Doug Burgum, who is running in the June primary against Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, describes North Dakota's budget woes as a $1.1 billion "deficit."
Stenehjem pushed back against that term, and a February Office of Management and Budget report referred to the fiscal situation as a "revenue shortfall."
The budget semantics touch on a larger debate among the candidates. After years of riding high, the economy and the state's budget are poised to be the main issues of the 2016 campaign.
A downturn in oil and farm commodity prices helped prompt Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple to order a 4.05 percent budget cut in February. A forecast projected general fund revenues would fall $1.1 billion short of the forecast the North Dakota Legislature used to set the current two-year budget, according to Forum News Service.
Asked last week about his use of the term "deficit," Burgum pointed out that the state drew $497.6 million from its Budget Stabilization Fund, leaving roughly $75 million.
"When we take money from savings to cover the shortfall, that's when people are trying to say we don't have a deficit. In the narrowest definition, that may be viewed as true," he said, acknowledging the state constitution requires a balanced budget. "I believe it's accurate to say ... the state right now is spending more every day than we have revenue coming in. And if you're spending more every day than you have coming in, then, again in the private sector, you'd call that a loss, you might call it a deficit."
For his part, Stenehjem said "deficit" is an inaccurate term because it implies the state is spending money it doesn't have.
"That's not the case," he said. "A shortfall is where (there is) less revenue than predicted, but we've been flexible and nimble and able to handle it."
But Burgum pointed to cuts in human services as one area the state is already hurting. That agency, the state's largest, will reduce its budget by almost $54 million.
"I would have a hard time reconciling that we planned for this," he said.
State Rep. Marvin Nelson, the Democratic candidate for governor, said he normally uses "shortfall."
"We have a budget, but we're not projecting that we're going to have as much money as the budget projected to start with, so we adjust," he said.
Brian Sigritz, director of state fiscal studies for the National Association of State Budget Officers, said they typically use the term "budget gap." He said "gap" and "shortfall" tend to reflect a projection of future spending, but he added that there's no universal definition that all states follow.
Regardless of the term, Burgum said the state is facing significant fiscal challenges. He said his message on the campaign trail has been about how the state should meet those obstacles.
"We're still facing the same challenges going forward, regardless of what it's called," Burgum said.